VIB signs cooperation agreement for the development of a new, universal flu vaccine


Ghent, Belgium This week the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) has entered into an agreement with the British company Acambis for the development of a new flu vaccine. Together VIB and Acambis want to develop a universal flu vaccine that offers protection from all flu variants. Furthermore this vaccine will not need to be renewed annually. VIB researchers linked to the Ghent University - led by Walter Fiers, professor Molecular Biology and former director of one of the Ghent VIB departments - carried out the research on which this new flu vaccine is based.

Flu, not an innocent illness...

Flu is an acute infection of the bronchial tubes and is caused by the flu virus. Flu is extremely contagious and makes you feel really ill. In addition, flu can have extremely serious consequences: on average 1,500 people die of flu in Belgium annually. There were even as many as 4,500 flu victims during the winter period of 1989 and 1990. According to the World Health Organization, on average 10 to 20% of the world's population is infected by flu every year. This leads to 3 to 5 million hospitalizations and 250 000 to 500 000 deaths a year.

What makes the influenza virus so special?

The outer coating of the influenza virus changes gradually, making the virus invisible to the antibodies that were built up during an earlier infection or vaccination; after all, these antibodies are aimed at the changeable proteins of the outer coating. Since no one as yet has antibodies, the slightly altered virus can easily set off a new epidemic. Thus far no vaccine has been developed against influenza that lasts for a lifetime, in contrast to diseases as polio, hepatitis B or measles.

Flu, prevention is better...

Vaccination offers the most efficient protection to flu. The present flu vaccines are a mixture of three vaccines, each offering protection to a certain virus strain. Vaccination reduces death and the amount of hospitalizations as a result of flu considerably. The government strongly advises flu vaccination for those over 60 years old, diabetes patients, people with diminished resistance or chronic kidney, heart and lung disorders. However, everyone can consider vaccination: it will give you 80% less chance of getting the flu next winter.

No more annual renewal thanks to new research?

VIB and the British company Acambis are collaborating on the development of a universal flu vaccine that offers protection to all flu variants. Moreover, the vaccine would not require annual adaptations to the virus changes. This is because the candidate vaccine uses the M2e-domain. This domain is strongly conserved, and nearly identical in all human virus strains, also those that caused the pandemics in the previous century. As a consequence, people can be vaccinated long before a new pandemic breaks out.

This innovative vaccine is currently in a preclinical phase. It is not longer produced by the growth of viruses, but the active component is produced in bacteria. Therefore the production process will be more effective, safer and cheaper.

Walter Fiers, co-inventor (UGent and VIB):

'The structure of M2e is almost identical in all known flu viruses that can be transmitted between people. We indicated that the M2e vaccine offers full protection to flu without side effects in mice. This way vaccination against all human flu viruses is possible, not only against viruses returning yearly, but even against future epidemics. Through our cooperation with Acambis we can continue the development of this promising vaccine.'

Cooperation between VIB and Acambis

Professor Walter Fiers and his team carried out the research on which the collaboration between VIB and Acambis is based. Acambis recently acquired an influenza A vaccine candidate from Apovia, a US company. Apovia had originally obtained the necessary technology for the development of the vaccine from VIB. Through the research collaboration with VIB, together with internal research, Acambis enters the flu vaccine market, one of the most significant vaccine markets.

Gordon Cameron, CEO (Acambis):

'This programme gives Acambis the opportunity to enter one of the most significant vaccine markets - influenza. The recent influenza vaccine shortages have highlighted the inadequacies of current influenza vaccines and their manufacturing methods. Through the collaboration with VIB we get the chance to develop the ultimate vaccine that will offer protection against all flu virus variants and reduce the annual redesign of the vaccine.'

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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