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Vaccines Health Center

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Flu Breakthrough: The Search for a Universal Vaccine

Tired of having to get a different flu shot -- or two -- every year? Someday one shot may protect us against all the strains.

The History of the Flu Shot continued...

But that might be about to change.

Last spring, Marasco made a huge breakthrough -- he finally hit on the flu virus's weakness. On the virus's surface sits a lollipop-shaped protein called hemagglutinin, which enables it to break into human cells and make us sick. Current flu vaccines trigger the immune system to launch an antibody attack against the most obvious target on that lollipop -- the big head at the top -- but that head is able to continually change and evade attack. Marasco has discovered human antibodies that instead target the stalk of the hemagglutinin protein, which is less likely to change and stays constant in different flu strains.

So far, the antibodies he's discovered have neutralized most flu strains tested. The next step is to get a drug based on these antibodies into clinical trials, which could happen as early as 2011, he says. If all goes well, Marasco's discovery could lead to the very first universal and long-lasting flu vaccine -- and the end of the seasonal flu shot ritual.

The Search for a Cold Cure

Meanwhile, in a laboratory at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, medicine and physiology professor Stephen B. Liggett, MD, is trying to crack the case of another public nuisance: the common cold. Doctors have been trying to cure this menace for almost as long as people have been getting colds, which is as far back as anyone can remember.

Trying to understand what makes all of the cold virus strains tick has not been easy. For Liggett and his research team, it was a meticulous and time-consuming task to sequence the genome of nearly 100 different strains of human rhinovirus -- the virus responsible for most colds. Decoding the 7,500 DNA bases that make up each strain is helping them understand the virus's design, family history, and vulnerabilities.

What Liggett's team has learned is that many cold viruses are related. On the rhinovirus family tree are about 10 groups of closely related viruses. That's good news, because it means that antiviral drugs could potentially be developed to target families of viruses, rather than trying to treat each individual strain. The bad news is that if two different cold virus strains infect the same person with a cold, they can swap genetic material to make a new strain. This means each cold virus has the potential to quickly produce new strains.

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