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.