Researchers at Tulane University may soon have a more effective way to fight the flu, thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Tulane immunologist Elizabeth Norton is working with a team of researchers to create a better flu vaccine. As part of that effort, they’re testing two compounds that stimulate the immune system.
The “new generation proteins,” as researchers call them, can boost a vaccine’s effectiveness and help protect high-risk populations such as the elderly. Called LTA and LTA1, they can also be used in smaller doses to stretch a limited vaccine supply, a benefit researchers say is “critical” when dealing with a pandemic flu.
“At the end of the day, I’m a scientist because I believe researching human health to give people better, happier and more productive lives is the best thing I can do with my time,” Norton said in a news release. “I think this grant will really help us to do something that could potentially have a huge impact on our community and the general population.”
The proteins Norton is studying could be used in a number of different vaccines, she said. Early trials have shown them to be “highly effective,” but more research is needed because they produced “unacceptable” side effects in some people.
Norton’s team will test the new flu vaccines on mice, using both skin injections and nasal sprays. Scientists will study the level of virus protection they offer and the mice’s immunologic responses.
The research is slated to continue through 2020.
A better vaccine would provide relief to millions more people than the vaccine available last year, when a mutated strain of a certain kind of flu, Type A, began spreading after the vaccine supply was already created and disseminated.
The 2014 vaccine was only 13 percent effective against the mutated virus, far less than the typical flu vaccine, which is 50 to 60 percent effective, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As a result, the CDC counted more flu-related hospitalizations of seniors last year than in any other decade on record. At least 146 children died from the virus last year — up 46 percent from the yearly average.
Mutations like last year’s are dangerous because it typically takes four months to create a new flu vaccine, according to CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.
Every year, health officials also struggle to get Americans vaccinated. Although the CDC recommends that everyone six months and older get the yearly vaccine, only about half of Americans do.
On average, the flu kills about 24,000 people a year in the United States.
It’s estimated that in recent years, between 80 percent and 90 percent of seasonal flu-related deaths have occurred in people 65 and older.
While researchers at Tulane work toward the goal of creating more effective vaccines, health officials have created a new delivery method this year that may encourage even those afraid of needles to get vaccinated.
Adults age 18 to 64 can choose to use a needle-free device called a jet injector.
The device forces the vaccine into a high-pressure, narrow stream of fluid that penetrates the skin, instead of a hypodermic needle, according to the CDC. Like a shot, however, the jet injector can still cause tenderness, bruising and swelling.
Another alternative to the traditional shot, a nasal spray, is also available again this year for people ages 2 through 49.
Overall, manufacturers this year are expected to make between 171 and 179 million doses of flu vaccine for the U.S. market.