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NIH scientists work on universal flu vaccine

Monday - 1/28/2013, 3:39am  ET

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Steve Perfetto isolates cells in the immunology lab at the Vaccine Research Center at NIH. (WTOP/Paula Wolfson)
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Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

BETHESDA, Md. - It could be a huge game changer in flu prevention.

Scientists are developing a universal vaccine that will offer protection against any and all flu strains, and the nucleus of that research is in the D.C. region.

It's taking place at the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institutes of Health, which was originally established in the mid-1990s to develop an AIDS vaccine.

That work is continuing, but the mission of the center is broader and these days, work on a universal flu vaccine is another big priority.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, convinced former President Bill Clinton to launch the center at the height of the AIDS epidemic.

"This is one of the few places anywhere where you can really have a 'soup to nuts' approach, where in the same building, the same camaraderie, you go from very basic research up through and including manufacturing a pilot lot of vaccine...to an actual clinical trial," he says,

It's an approach well suited to the challenge of creating a breakthrough in flu prevention. Current vaccines target a part of the virus that changes or "drifts" over time. That is why there is a new vaccine every year.

Scientists have found a part of the virus common to all flu strains but, for some reason, the immune system cannot see it.

Using molecular engineering and other high-tech tools, scientists at the Vaccine Research Center are looking for a way to get the body to create an immune response to that hidden virus "stem."

Watch an animation of the flu virus:

Dr. Rick Koup, director of the immunology lab, says there's a sense of optimism among the 100 or so staffers at the center.

"We know that we can induce the types of antibodies that have universal targeting of the different strains of influenza," he says.

Koup says translating this into an actual product that can be manufactured may take a few years, maybe longer. But a tour of the lab reveals excitement, and Koup says everyone knows what is at stake.

"If we had a universal vaccine where basically you get the vaccine and you are protected against virtually all of the strains that are out there, it would be a huge game changer."

A universal vaccine would remove the annual uncertainty over which strains are likely to strike and when. It would also take away the inconvenience of getting a flu shot every year, and Fauci predicts that will encourage more people to get vaccinated.

But don't ask him for a timetable. Fauci says 10 years ago he wasn't even sure a universal vaccine was possible. But now, though he can't say when, he believes it will happen

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