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University of Hong Kong develops new, universal flu vaccine

New flu vaccine from Hong Kong protects against a number of viruses, including bird flu

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A medical breakthrough at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has seen development of a new vaccine for a number of flu strands, including the fatal H7N9 bird flu virus.

Working against influenza ‘A’ viruses, the vaccine provides defence against seasonal, pathogenic and pandemic flu strands, as well as the deadly type of bird flu that broke out in China earlier this year.

‘An influenza pandemic caused by a novel strain of influenza ‘A’ virus that is virulent and highly transmissible among humans will be of great global concern,’ a HKU release read, naming the possibility of a novel flu outbreak ‘unpredictable.’

‘Therefore, the development of an effective universal vaccination strategy is urgently needed.’

The vaccine uses the vaccinia virus-the key ingredient in vaccines for smallpox-as a virus carrier, and was injected into hundreds of mice that were later infected with different types of flu viruses. Of the mice inoculated, 80 to 100 per cent survived. Of mice that were not, none were so lucky.

‘Current influenza vaccines target only specific and individual subtypes, but it is difficult for scientists to predict which types of a virus will cause the next pandemic,’ HKU lead researcher Dr. Leo Poon Lit-man told the South China Morning Post.

‘That is the reason why we should study whether there is another way to offer a broader spectrum of protection against different subtypes of viruses.’

The H7N9 strain of bird flu first broke out in the Yangtze River Delta and Anhui provinces of mainland China in February last year, and has since been a key concern for Chinese researchers. Of the 375 human cases of bird flu reported by February 28 of this year, 115 were fatal.

In April, teams of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Engineering successfully isolated the bird flu virus from the throat swab of an infected patient. From here, they were able to develop vaccine seeds that were used to create the first influenza vaccine ever made by Chinese scientists.Hong Kong researchers have also previously developed a non-invasive screening test for Down’s syndrome from the blood of pregnant women.

Long at the forefront of vaccination research, HKU researchers conducted a groundbreaking preclinical study into AIDS vaccinations in March 2013. Tested on a model monkey system, the strategy developed saw high levels of immunity to the HIV virus, and delayed AIDS onsets in all of the monkeys that had been vaccinated.

Whilst the use of the vaccinia virus makes the new vaccine licensed to be used on humans, it is unlikely to be produced commercially. Experiments are currently underway in the US on an experimental H7N9 vaccine whose production is likely to outstrip that of HKU’s vaccine.

 

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Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.