Flu vaccination 2.0: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports HZI vaccine research

HZI researchers receive funding for an early step towards a universal influenza vaccine

If you want to protect yourself from the flu, you have to be vaccinated anew every year because the viruses are constantly changing the components to which our immune system responds. Our immune system primarily reacts to the two viral proteins haemagglutinin (HA) and neuraminidase (NA), although it has been shown that today’s vaccines only trigger a weak immune response against neuraminidase in the vaccinated individuals. This is unfortunate, as evidence suggests that sufficient antibodies against NA can be at least as effective against influenza infections as those against haemagglutinin. The researchers now want to make better use of this effect.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now funding an HZI research project in which neuraminidase is modified to improve stability and promote longer lasting immunity against multiple kinds of influenza viruses. The vision behind this is to develop a universal influenza vaccine based on the designer antigens. 
Prof Alice McHardy, head of the HZI Department "Bioinformatics of Infection Research" coordinates the project, which is supported with approximately 1.7 million dollars over a period of two years. The HZI teams led by Prof Carlos A. Guzmán (Vaccinology) and Prof Wulf Blankenfeldt (Structure and Function of Proteins) as well as Prof Mohammad Mofrad (Mechanical Engineering and Bioengineering, University of California, Berkeley) are also involved in the interdisciplinary cooperation.

Scientific background: 

The deficiencies of inactivated virus-based influenza vaccines probably lie in an individual instability of neuraminidase and the requirement to recombine the components annually. The HZI researchers want to overcome both problems with their approach. Using genetic, structural and evolutionary information, the researchers hope to develop NA protein variants that stimulate the production of antibodies that neutralize a range of different influenza viruses. The efficiency of the resulting variants will subsequently be evaluated in mouse and ferret models. 
The HZI researchers expect that the proposed research, possibly in combination with HA as the target structure, will substantially advance the development of a universal influenza vaccine.