Melbourne: Killer immune cells that can fight all strains of influenza virus may pave the way for a universal, one-shot flu vaccine, according to a study. These microscopic killers are white blood cells that can maintain a memory of previous exposure to a flu strain, said researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia. If they recognise an invader, these cells start an immune response to target and kill off the virus — stopping the infection, they said. Despite hopes that the ‘memories’ of killer cells — formally known as CD8+T cells — could be used to create a vaccine that would last for life, previous studies have shown that these cells could only mount a repeated attack against strain A.
Using new technology, a study published in the journal Nature Immunology, reveals game-changing results — the ‘killer cells’ can actually fight all influenza strains, A, B and C. “Our team has been fascinated by the killer cells for a long time,” said Katherine Kedzierska, a professor at the University of Melbourne. Working with Fudan University in China, the team studied the immune responses of patients to the first outbreak of the avian-derived H7N9 influenza virus (bird flu) in China in 2013. This outbreak was contracted directly from birds and was dominated by the type A virus. It hospitalised more than 90 per cent of infected people and killed more than 35 per cent of them.
The research found that those patients who recovered within two to three weeks had robust killer CD8+T cell responses, whereas those who died had a diminished presence of the ‘killer’ cells. “So our next step was to discover how their protective mechanism worked, and if it had potential for a flu vaccine,” said Kedzierska. “The flu virus is composed of protein coat that covers its genetic code in its core,” said University of Melbourne PhD candidate Marios Koutsakos.