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Tackling Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Challenges and Advancements

Bright Spot in Vaccine Development: Influenza

One bright spot in vaccine development, however, has been the flu vaccine. Flu shots have become a staple of many Americans’ autumn routines, and the vaccine has improved over the years, Dr. Kinch said, though its effectiveness can vary year-by-year due to the rapid mutation of the virus.

Some of the latest research into the flu vaccine aims to address that problem by better understanding what enables the virus to change so fast.

Matthew Shoulders, PhD, is the author of a new study that found the flu virus uses cell proteins called chaperones to assist in its mutation. Chaperones help proteins fold into the correct shape, and thus, can ensure more efficient evolution.

Building on the work of Stanford University’s Judith Frydman, PhD, Dr. Shoulders discovered that not only can chaperones help RNA viruses replicate, they also appear to speed along virus mutation.

“Our work reveals that host protein folding factors play a significant role in the rate and direction of influenza evolution,” Dr. Shoulders said. “An implication of that finding is that targeting these host factors could be a complementary therapeutic approach to drugs that directly target flu proteins, perhaps as therapeutic adjuvants given in combination with an antiviral drug.”

The finding should help researchers improve the designs of their flu vaccines, which could someday have the effect of reducing the frequency of vaccinations.

Yet, even as scientific breakthroughs continue, Dr. Kinch said vaccine developers will also have to overcome changing economics.

“Between industry consolidation and the rising costs of research and development, there are a  smaller number of players that are still in the space,” Dr. Kinch said.

Kinch looked at all of the companies that have ever contributed to an innovative vaccine. Of those, only 10 remain active in research and development.

“It’s humbling,” Dr. Kinch said.
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