Viruses are little packets of DNA cloaked in proteins. We make antibodies that target the outer protein shell, flagging the virus as an invader to be destroyed. In the arms race, viruses evade detection by making constant changes to that outer coating. But not the whole coating, just a piece of it that is referred to as the “head.” We might gain a foothold in this race because the flu keeps the same “stem” region across many of its flavors, including H1N1 and the much-talked about H5N1 (avian flu). In response to the pandemic 2009 H1N1 infection, some people made broadly neutralizing antibodies directed against that stem region. We all have the gene to do it; the trick seems to be finding the right immunogen to show to the immune system. The seasonal vaccines we get at the doctor’s office haven’t been able to elicit such a response, yet, though people who have been exposed to many flu vaccines are more likely to have broadly neutralizing antibodies. So all those shots you got weren’t for nothing.
Research is bringing us closer to that dream of a universal flu vaccine. It’s been making headlines in the big journals this month. A paper published in Nature this week shows what makes for a good universal antibody and how the immune system needs to display it. A paper in Science Express earlier this month found that people can make broadly universal antibodies that target both influenzas A and B. If all the pieces come together, it could be the end of annual flu vaccines for future generations.