As memories of the deadly flu strain in China last year are still fresh, an Ohio State University researcher is using a recently awarded $2.2 million grant to develop a new type of flu vaccine that could protect both humans and animals.
Chang-Won Lee, associate professor in Ohio State's Food Animal Health Research Program, received the grant from a USDA-National Institutes of Health joint program that funds medical research using farm animal models. The ultimate goal is to create a universal solution to both human and animal health issues.
Lee's project is different from other flu projects in that it uses both chicken and swine models – in addition to mice – to test flu vaccine options. Lee said the addition of chicken and swine models helps him overcome traditional hurdles when using mice alone.
Swine is a better model to use for several human infectious diseases, he said, because even good results are noted in mice, they can't always be extrapolated to humans.
"The mouse is an animal that is very easy to protect against the flu, but that doesn't mean the vaccine works in humans. If you can show that something works in a large animal, especially swine, which is anatomically, physiologically and immunologically similar to humans, then there is much more of a chance that it will work in humans," he added.
An additional benefit, he notes, is that swine and poultry are typically the most susceptible to carrying and transmitting the flu.
Currently available flu vaccines are effective against only a few strains at a time, and they're not always targeted against the strains that end up circulating during flu season. That's one reason why more than 200,000 people are hospitalized due to seasonal flu every year in the U.S., with thousands of deaths.
In addition, flu viruses mutate easily, developing new pandemic strains that humans have little to no immunity against. They often pass between animals and humans.
For example, the H7N9 avian influenza, discovered in 2009 in China, caused 43 fatalities in humans. But with a universal flu vaccine, humans and animals could be protected against a broad array of flu strains and it would not need to be reformulated annually.
"Agricultural and medical researchers don't normally work together, but we should," Lee said.
That's why he has partnered with Jason Jiang at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, who first discovered an important property of the norovirus protein that is being used in Lee's project.
Jiang is also conducting research on the new vaccine, though is only testing it in mice.
"So far, we have shown that our construct is highly immunogenic (mice, swine and poultry)," Lee said. "We are now working on two more things: studying how effective this is against different flu strains, and looking in more detail for the protective immune correlates. That is, we are not just looking to see if our new vaccine is protective or not, we want to answer how it works -- the mechanism of action."
Currently, the researchers are working with low-pathogenic flu strains -- the type that cause mild illness -- but plan to examine the vaccine's effectiveness against highly pathogenic strains, which can cause severe disease, in years three and four of the study.