Researchers at the Jenner Institute – a collaboration between the Pirbright Institute and Oxford University – have moved a step closer to developing a universal vaccine against avian influenza.

“Traditional avian flu vaccines are only effective against one particular type of flu, but we want to be able to protect birds, and ultimately people, against different subtypes using just one vaccine,” said Colin Butter, who led the project. “This research suggests that, in principle, a universal vaccine is possible.”

Poultrymeat is the most popular source of protein across the world and is increasingly in demand in the burgeoning economies of South and East Asia, he added. With the global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, improving poultry production by controlling disease will be vital.

The team used a vaccine based on proteins from within a human flu virus, which was effective to initiate an immune response in chickens that would, in theory, protect against multiple strains of flu. It also reduced the extent to which birds shed live infectious virus that could further an outbreak of disease.

“We’ve found that, by using proteins that are very similar in all flu viruses and delivering them packaged inside another harmless virus, we can safely vaccinate the chick while it is still developing inside the egg and then give a booster injection after hatch,” explained Dr Butter. “This seems to be effective in priming the chicken’s immune systems against a bird flu virus only distantly related to the human virus whose genes we used to make the vaccine.”

The next stage will be to investigate how effective this strategy can be in preventing the spread of virus in birds. If it works well, it could play an important role in protecting both birds and humans from a disease that is still a killer in both populations.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and published in the journal Vaccine.

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Philip Clarke on G+