Does this Professor hold key to creation of a universal flu vaccine?



A leading University College London professor is confident that his pioneering medical research could lead to the successful development of a vaccine that will protect against any type of flu.

Prof William Rosenberg believes the use of “protein scaffold” technology - where the human immune system is primed to fight off flu - provides a blueprint for the creation of a so-called universal flu vaccine.

The influenza virus is a constantly changing target, meaning that the seasonal flu jabs currently available either become ineffective over time or miss the target completely and fail to stop the illness.

Worldwide annual influenza infections affect three to five million people annually – with up to 500,000 deaths from the disease occurring each year.

A practicing clinical doctor at the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead, where he leads the viral hepatitis service, Prof Rosenberg has made the development of new vaccines his major research project. This work is now focused on making a universal flu vaccine.

He told the JC: "I am confident now that we can stop a mouse from dying of flu - but what we need to do is move from stopping mice from dying to making our vaccine work for humans."

The pursuit of a universal flu vaccine has been taken up by several medical research teams over the past few years, but the majority of projects have stalled or failed to make it over the first hurdle.

Prof Rosenberg, a practicing Jew and a member of Belsize Square synagogue, said the succession of failed seasonal vaccines, - over the past four years, at least two have failed - has made the manufacture of a universal jab all the more vital.

"The problem with influenza is that it is a master of disguise," Prof Rosenberg explained. "It can change its coat every single year creating many different variants or ‘strains’ of flu.

"There have been successive failures with seasonal vaccines because their production is based on predicting which strain is going to cause flu in the country that coming season. This prediction is based on surveillance of which strain is causing flu in the southern hemisphere the season before.

"If we guess wrongly and the strain of flu hitting the UK is not the same as the one that hit the southern hemisphere the season before - then the vaccine/jab we have been given will not protect us."

Despite this, Prof Rosenberg supports the use of the existing seasonal vaccines as valuable, at least until better vaccines can be developed.

This explains why the race to create the first prescribed universal vaccine is all the more essential.

"True influenza is a nasty illness," Prof Rosenberg added. "In healthy adults you will get bad muscle pains, severe headache, feel really ill for a week to ten days, so you wouldn't be able to function at work. But in the elderly, the very young and people with serious illnesses it could even prove to be a fatal illness.

"A little known fact, but still a very important one, is that more people died in 1919 from influenza than died in the whole of the First World War.

"A significant number of people still die from influenza - particularly the young, old and the vulnerable.

"During the flu season we will have people on the intensive care unit who are really, really sick from influenza."

Prof Rosenberg, who grew up in Brighton, revealed that early phase research has offered positive signs.

Working alongside a team of renowned experts in vaccine development, he said: "Our approach is completely different from current flu vaccines and other vaccines based on live of killed viruses.

"We are using protein scaffold to build a particle. It looks a bit like a golf ball, and onto the outside of the golf ball we stick our protein of interest from influenza.

"The golf ball itself is carries the influenza proteins and also helps boost the immune response to flu.

"When we put that particle into the patient their immune system sees it as a virus, but the vaccine itself is much safer than a virus vaccine because it is just a ball of protein.

"The immune system mounts a response to the flu proteins on the surface – and if the vaccinated person then encounters a flu infection, the immune system is primed to fight it off."

With preliminary work on developing the vaccine and manufacturing it continuing, the hope is to enter a human clinical trial of the vaccine by the summer of 2018.

A successful phase one human trial would confirm it was safe to give to patients and also allow the team to measure immune responses which would give an indication as to how well the vaccine has worked.

But as with all medical research, funding remains a critical issue.

Prof Rosenberg estimates that it will cost around £3 million to move from where the research stands now up to completing a human trial.

"But we are talking about a drug that will be worth billions of pounds if it works," he reasoned.

"It is really difficult to get government organisations or charities to fund that period of development where you take a good concept and give it to a human subject for the first time."

The concept has already received critical support from Prof John Oxford, who is one of the UK's top experts in influenza at Queen Mary College's Blizzard Institute.

Prof Oxford believes the research has "more chance than most to be a highly successful formulation."

But Prof Rosenberg said he would always resist the temptation to embellish results or over-exaggerate the likelihood of success - in part down to the Jewish ethics that he says continue to influence his work.

"In my thinking integrity is at the very core of being a good scientist. It is about recognising and telling the truth, even when it is uncomfortable."


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