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Scientists closer to flu vaccine after natural pandemic

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Scientists are closer to developing a universal flu vaccine due to testing during the 2009 flu pandemic.

Researchers from Imperial College London recruited 342 staff and students to take part in the study. Volunteers donated blood samples at the beginning of the study and were sent health surveys every three weeks by email. If they experienced flu symptoms, they took a nasal swab and sent it back to the lab. They had to continue to report their symptoms over the next two flu seasons.

Those who didn't have severe symptoms had more CD8 T cells, a type of virus-killing immune cell, in their blood at the start of the pandemic.

Researchers believe that a vaccine that stimulates the body to produce more of these cells could be effective at preventing flu viruses, including new strains that cross into humans from birds and pigs.

The team was led by Professor Ajit Lalvani, from the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College. ‘New strains of flu are continuously emerging, some of which are deadly, and so the Holy Grail is to create a universal vaccine that would be effective against all strains of flu,' he said.

‘The immune system produces theses CD8 T cells in response to usual seasonal flu. Unlike antibodies they target the core of the virus, which does not change, even in new pandemic strains. The 2009 pandemic provided a unique natural experiment to test whether T cells could recognise, and protect us against, new strains that we haven't encountered before and to which we lack antibodies,' he added.

Professor Lalvani is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science and a National Institute for Health Research Senior Investigator. Other members of the team received support from Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, the Medical Research Council and Public Health England.

A video featuring interviews from Professor Lalvani and a couple of participants can be viewed on the Imperial College YouTube page here:

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