Each year during flu season, millions of Americans get the flu vaccine. Yet, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2014-15, the vaccine was only 23 percent effective. In 2016, however, virologist Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin-Madison believed he may have developed a method to predict flu virus mutations to create better vaccines.
Kawaoka and his team conducted two sets of experiments: one addressing antigenic mutations of flu viruses and another relating to identifying mutations that lead to high-yield virus growth. For the antigenic selection experiments, Kawaoka mixed a variety of mutation-carrying flu viruses and antibodies for placement in canine cells for virus growth. His team then mapped and analyzed the viruses for patterns of mutations that would allow said viruses to avoid the antibodies.
For the high-yield virus experiments, Kawaoka's team studied viruses that grew the fastest in canine cells for mutations that allowed for high growth. Then, the team again mutated the viruses individually and placed them in monkey cells, and—after the viruses grew—collected those that grew best in the cells. This mapping could ultimately help predict the molecular characteristics of potential flu viruses.
Researchers typically select vaccines several months before flu season due to the amount of time it takes to create them. Kawaoka proposes that using monkey and dog cells to manufacture flu shots could save time compared to the current method of using chicken eggs.
“This is the first demonstration that one can accurately anticipate in the lab future seasonal influenza strains. We can identify the mutations that will occur in nature and make those vaccines available at the time of the vaccine candidate selection,” Kawaoka said.
Despite Kawaoka’s findings, in October of 2014, some of his research was banned due to biosecurity concerns. Specifically, the ban was on a type of research known as “gain-of-function.”
Gain-of-function research involves conducting studies by changing viruses to become more dangerous. Scientists typically use this method to create better vaccines or to prepare for diseases. Some researchers believe that Kawoaka’s work on dog and monkey cells is connected with this method of research, but he claims that his studies were done before the ban.
As of late September 2016, the U.S. government had not made a sound decision about gain-of-function research. Depending on these pending decisions, Kawaoka’s findings may play a role in 2017 flu seasons.
[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal; Amie Eisfeld, of Kawaoka Lab]