Scientists are developing a ‘revolutionary’ flu vaccine that can be taken as a pill.
As well as likely being preferred by those with a fear of needles, the drug will not require refrigeration, which will make it easier to transport and more suitable for developing countries with warm climates, according to Welsh researchers.
Like all vaccines, the medication works by exposing people to a harmless part of a pathogen, such as a protein, which stimulates their immune systems so it launches a stronger response if it encounters the virus again.
By containing synthetic pathogen-like proteins rather than biological ones, the new vaccine is not digested and can therefore be taken orally, the researchers claim.
When given to mice and human cells infected with flu, the vaccine stimulated a strong immune response, a study found.
Speaking of the findings, Divya Shah, from Wellcome’s infection and immunobiology team, who was not involved in the trial, said: ‘This is a very exciting first proof-of-concept study that could provide a potential route to make vaccines that are thermostable and be administered orally.’
The researchers stress, however, it could be several years before the treatment is tested on humans and it is therefore unclear when it may be widely available.
Scientists are developing a ‘revolutionary’ flu vaccine that can be taken as a pill (stock)
WHAT FLU STRAINS ARE IN THE UK IN 2018?
There are many different types of flu circulating around the world, but four main types are being seen in Britain this winter.
H3N2 – Dubbed ‘Aussie flu’ after it struck Australia hard last winter, this strain is more likely to affect the elderly, who do not respond well to the current vaccine. This is one of the most common strains seen so far this winter, with at least 63 confirmed cases seen in official laboratories.
H1N1 – This strain – known as ‘swine flu’ – is generally more likely to hit children, who respond well to vaccination. This has been seen nearly as often as H3N2 so far this year, with at least 50 cases confirmed in labs. In the past it was commonly caught from pigs, but that changed in 2009 when it started spreading rapidly among humans in a major global pandemic.
B / Yamagata – This is known as ‘Japanese flu’. Only people who received the ‘four strain’ vaccine – which is being slowly rolled out after it was introduced for the first time last winter – are protected against the Yamagata strain. Those who received the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine are not protected. This strain has been seen in at least 63 lab cases so far this winter.
B / Victoria – This strain is vaccinated against in the normal ‘three strain’ vaccine, but has hardly appeared so far this winter, with just around four confirmed cases.
‘There are many benefits of oral vaccines’
Lead author Professor Andrew Sewell, from the University of Cardiff, said: ‘There are many benefits of oral vaccines.
‘Not only would they be great news for people who have a fear of needles, but they can also be much easier to store and transport, making them far more suitable for use in remote locations where current vaccine delivery systems can be problematic.’
The scientists add the new pill could lead to a ‘revolution in vaccine delivery’ that would benefit many diseases. An oral polio vaccine is already available but needs to be stored in the freezer.
Ms Shah added: ‘This could reduce the cost and increase accessibility across the globe, however much more research is needed to translate the findings into real-world vaccines.’
Created ‘mirror images’ of real flu viruses
The researchers created the oral vaccine by producing man-made pathogen-like proteins that are ‘mirror images’ of those found in real flu viruses.
Professor Sewell explained: ‘The carbon molecules that form all proteins on Earth are left-handed molecules, but they also have a non-biologic, right-handed form.
‘Even though these two forms of a molecule look identical at first glance they are actually mirror images of each other, just like our right and left hands, and cannot be superimposed on each other.
‘The left-handed forms of proteins are easily digested and do not last long in nature. The unnatural, right-handed forms of these molecules are vastly more stable.’
The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The medication exposes people to a harmless part of a pathogen, which stimulates their immune systems so it launches a stronger response if it encounters the virus again (stock)
Last year’s flu vaccine ineffective in the elderly
This comes after Public Health England announced last year’s winter flu vaccine reduced the risk of infection by 66 per cent in children but was ineffective in the elderly.
Among youngsters, the jab was eight per cent more efficacious than the previous year and worked the best since it was first used in children in 2013.
Yet, the vaccine was ineffective in people aged 65 and over.
This is thought to be due to the jab failing to protect against the H3 flu strain, which circulated last winter.
Each year, the World Health Organization selects the three most common strains of flu to create the best vaccine. Such jabs are typically effective in 50 per cent of cases.