The flu takes a formidable toll each year. Researchers and health workers save lives by routinely rolling out seasonal vaccines and deploying drugs to fight the virus and its secondary infections. But in the U.S. alone the flu still kills tens of thousands of people and hospitalizes hundreds of thousands more.
A big part of the problem has been correctly predicting what strains of the influenza virus health officials should try to combat in a given season. A team of scientists from the U.S. and China now say they have designed a vaccine that could take the guesswork out of seasonal flu protection by boosting the immune system’s capacity to combat many viral strains.
The University of California, Los Angeles–led group reported in this week’s Science that they may have created the “Goldilocks” of flu vaccines—one that manages to trigger a very strong immune response without making infected animals sick. And unlike current flu vaccines, the new version also fuels a strong reaction from disease-fighting white blood cells called T cells. That development is important because a T cell response will likely confer longer-term protection than current inoculations do and defend against a variety of flu strains (because T cells would be on the lookout for several different features of the flu virus whereas antibodies would be primarily focused on the shape of a specific strain). “This is really exciting,” says Kathleen Sullivan, chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who was not involved in the work.