Recent headlines have promised that a ‘universal flu vaccine’ may be within reach, pointing to antibodies that offer broad protection in animal studies. But the scientists behind this effort had to first overcome great skepticism from their peers—as well as an imperfect laboratory test. Hannah Hoag reports on one virologist’s 20-year effort to challenge the tenets of the field.
Influenza is the Lady Gaga of viruses: it reinvents itself each year, often in unexpected ways. But the flu virus is far more dangerous than an infectious tune. Although the flu usually manifests as a mild illness, the virus kills as many as 500,000 people worldwide each year, and it continues to provide a challenge from a vaccination standpoint. Whereas most vaccines for illnesses such as measles or polio offer years or decades of protection, influenza vaccines tend to work for only one season. The relentless refashioning means new influenza vaccines must be routinely reformulated, all at a cost to consumers and global health systems of more than $4 billion each year.
A new type of vaccine could be on the way. In the past few years, a flurry of papers has provided firm evidence of antibodies capable of neutralizing multiple subtypes of the influenza virus. Immunologists say that isolating such antibodies is the first step toward the creation of a universal influenza vaccine that protects against seasonal flu year after year—and possibly prevents hundreds of millions of deaths when the next influenza pandemic sweeps across the globe. Several such universal flu vaccines are already in early human clinical testing. But convincing the biology community of the existence and potential of such antibodies was an uphill battle, and one complicated by a ‘gold standard’ test that masked the key findings.
Yoshinobu Okuno, who has chased the dream of a universal antibody against flu since 1989, knows these challenges well. Okuno, a virologist at Osaka University in Japan, is now viewed by many experts in the field as an important and early champion of the idea. Yet his discovery two decades ago of a broad-acting antibody called C179 didn’t make waves at the time. “People didn’t pay attention to it,” says Ian Wilson, a structural biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. “In those days, most people weren’t thinking about broadly neutralizing antibodies that you could develop for flu.”
The very test that prompted Okuno to look for these special antibodies—a tool known as the hemagglutination inhibition assay—tripped up the efforts of others in the field. In hindsight, the fault in the assay provides a cautionary tale of how the shortcomings of a test can mean that biomedical researchers miss what they are not looking for.
Continue reading this story at Nature Medicine.