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Flu could be prevented without a vaccine

August 17, 2015

Researchers at Ohio State University have suggested that it would be possible to design a method to prevent the flu virus without the need for a vaccine.

This should be of interest to those involved in sharps safety, as the World Health Organization (WHO) has said that reducing the number of unnecessary injections could be one of the best ways to reduce needlestick injuries.

The team at Ohio State University found a way to trigger a preventative response to a flu infection without having to use the virus itself or interferon. 

During experiments in the lab, they found they were able to manipulate a natural process, which could provide a different way to reduce the severity of flu and could even prevent the infection altogether in the future.

“The flu vaccine needs to change every year because the virus is constantly mutating. What we’re doing is targeting a more fundamental process that is not specific to any particular strain of the virus,” says Jacob Yount, assistant professor of microbial infection and immunity at Ohio State University and senior author of the study.

Published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, the study showed that altering the role of one protein could stop the flu virus. Once this had been established, Professor Yount and his team used experimental drugs to test this flu prevention strategy.

However, the potential for this to be used in humans is still a number of years away, but the team's goal is to create a vaccine-independent method to prevent flu infections.

“If we were to have an outbreak of some pandemic influenza virus similar to what we experienced in 2009, I could envision using this technique to help people who are particularly vulnerable to infection,” he says. “It would work best if used before an infection, because the strategy prevents cells from becoming infected in the first place.”

The method revolves around the ability to boost the amount of a specific protein in a cell before the virus attacks it. However, this depends on suppressing the function of another protein.

In this instance, the protein is called interferon-induced transmembrane protein 3 (IFITM3) and is produced in large quantities only after the flu virus is present, so it can reduce the severity of infection. 

It targets the virus by confining it and preventing it from multiplying, which means that increasing the protein level before the flu ever arrives would prevent infection from occurring.

“We figured out a way to induce just this single interferon response – the most important thing interferon does for flu,” Yount says. “That was a huge finding – that you don’t need an infection or interferon to increase the level of IFITM3. The steady-state level of the protein is enough to inhibit the virus if you get rid of NEDD4.”

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