Duke researchers working on mRNA flu vaccine that would last up to 5 years

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DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The short 11 months it took to make two life-saving SARS-CoV-2 vaccines is just the beginning for others. Messenger RNA has been the pathway to produce both the Pfizer and Moderna versions.

The Duke Human Vaccine Institute has received a contract with the National Institutes of Health to create a flu vaccine that also uses mRNA technology.

“We actually just completed in the past two weeks the manufacture of a messenger RNA vaccine for influenza that should have broad reactivity across many different strains to make a universal flu vaccine,” said the institute’s director, Dr. Barton Haynes.

Haynes said the new version of the flu vaccine would allow people to only have to get a flu shot every four or five years. Instead of the guesswork needed to produce a seasonal flu shot, this vaccine would target what each flu season already has in common.

“That’s where all this work is, is to learn how to target those common spots, those conserved regions that will react with lots of different strains or all the different strains optimally,” Haynes said.

It also would mean more people across the globe could be vaccinated because certain allergies would be eliminated.

“They go into cells in the body and then the protein made in the body that becomes the vaccine that protects the immune response. And of course, there are no eggs involved and no egg allergy,” Haynes said.

Dr. Tony Moody is leading the CIVICS flu vaccine program at DHVI.

While the mRNA flu vaccine goes through clinical trials, it’s currently expensive to produce. The needed raw materials are in high demand due to the amount of COVID-19 vaccines being processed. But, post pandemic, Haynes said it will be cheaper and easier to make than the current process of making the influenza vaccine.

The technology is also being applied to a virus that came decades before the current pandemic and has taken close to 33 million lives. Four years ago, DHVI teamed up with Dr. Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania, known for developing a platform for mRNA vaccines, to work on an HIV vaccine.

An mRNA vaccine had already shown its prolonged effectiveness against the Zika virus in monkeys.

“HIV was discovered in 1983 and here we are 37 years later and we don’t have an HIV vaccine but we got a COVID vaccine in 11 months. Why did that happen? The short version is that COVID is caused by an RNA virus that mutates, but it’s not mutating very quickly. HIV is caused by an RNA virus that is one of the fastest evolving life forms on earth,” Hayes said.

“COVID does not insert itself into our genetic material whereas HIV inserts into our genetic material when it infects us and then hides, so the immune system can’t see it. That means that we’ve got to get a vaccine that protects immediately and we can’t let any infection occur. The protective antibodies that protect us from COVID, from SARS-CoV-2, our body is very happy to make. The protective antibodies that protect us from HIV, our body doesn’t want to make because they’re so unusual.

“What we’re having to learn to do with HIV is to get the immune system to do something that it doesn’t normally want to do. It turns out that mRNAs are very useful for this because the HIV vaccine is many different proteins with several sequential shots. It’s going to be the most complicated vaccine made because we’re having to lead the immune system to where we want it to go. So mRNA is useful to simplify this vaccine and make it more practical.”

DHVI currently has prototyped HIV vaccines that are being made for clinical trials. Both developments, to fight against influenza and HIV, could change the way the diseases are fought in the near future.

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