New universal flu vaccine trial uses mRNA technology, aims to enhance protection

Michael Perchick Image
Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Universal flu vaccine trial aims to enhance protection
Duke Health is holding a trial for a new universal flu vaccine trial, with a goal of enhancing protection against more strains by using mRNA technology.

Duke Health is holding a trial for a new universal flu vaccine trial, with the goal of enhancing protection against more strains by using mRNA technology.

"You just have to plug that in and you're kind of ready to go. So you're right - it's very adaptable and changeable, and also in terms of production, it's a lot easier to produce," said Dr. Emmanuel Walter of the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, who serves as principal investigator leading the clinical trials.

According to the CDC, there have been at least 27 million flu cases this season, including 290,000 hospitalizations and 19,000 deaths. Current vaccines are formulated in advance based off predictions by scientists of which will be the most dominant strain, allowing manufacturers to produce vaccines.

""One of the big problems for flu is flu changes. By the time we pick the strains that go in the vaccines, by the time flu vaccines get manufactured, sometimes the strain can change some, or even during the season, from September to January or February, the flu strain can change as well," said Walter.

The federal health agency says vaccine efficacy ranges from 40-60% each season.

"You want to be able to develop a vaccine or a flu vaccine that offers more cross-protections," said Walter.

The trial will include 50 adults ages 18-49 and was planned prior the pandemic, in which mRNA gained greater attention for its usage in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines.

"We need a better flu vaccine. One that provides better protection, one that would allow us to pivot quickly should we have a problem like we had in 2008 where we have a mismatch between what's in the vaccine and what's actually circulating," said Dr. Jeb Teichman, a retired pediatrician who referred to its prospects as a "game-changer" while expressing concern that misinformation surrounding mRNA would impact vaccination rates.

The issue is personal to Teichman, whose son Brent passed away from the flu in 2019 when he was 29 years old. While Brent had planned on getting the vaccine, he had not done so prior to becoming infected.

"I asked them to hold the phone up so I can hear the EMS folks trying to revive my son. Calling for round after round of epinephrine. I could hear the beeping of the monitors to this day when I close my eyes at night," Teichman said, adding his son was otherwise healthy at the time of his passing.

He now works with the non-profit advocacy group Families Fighting Flu, which promotes education, awareness, and vaccinations.

"This is what I do now. It's my son's legacy, talking about influenza and vaccinations in general," said Teichman.

During Phase 1 of the trial, enrollees will be monitored for a year, and will receive different dosage levels, with a portion of participants used as a control group with the current vaccine. Researchers will study the vaccine's safety and immune response, including how it holds up if the virus changes. Based off those results, it could be expanded to include other age groups.

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