A gene-expression signature correlates with a person’s likelihood of experiencing adverse events after receiving a seasonal flu vaccine, scientists show.
Getting a seasonal flu shot can leave healthy adults with the common side effects of feeling achy or feverish. Now, researchers have identified a gene-expression pattern in circulating immune cells that could help predict which individuals are more likely to suffer these adverse effects following vaccination. This molecular signature was also correlated with a person’s chances of having autoreactive antibodies, according to the results published today (January 4) in Nature Immunology.
“Man flu,” a disparaging term for one’s exaggeration of flu-like symptoms, “is partly a joke and it’s partly real. Our study shows that there are very good reasons for people feeling unwell after a vaccination,” said study coauthor Adrian Hayday of King’s College London. “The gene signature in the peripheral blood . . . is not a smoking gun at this point, but it’s a strong association and quite compelling.”
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Flu viruses trick immune cells into fighting seasonal battles instead of all out war.
Ditching annual flu shots for a single stick that can protect year after year may be even harder to do than scientists thought—thanks to our own bamboozled immune systems.
Influenza viruses are infamous masters of mutation, changing themselves ever so slightly to dodge detection by immune cells. That viral variation drives the need for us to roll up our sleeves each fall instead of relying on our immune system’s memory of last year’s flu—or so researchers thought. A new study finds that although our immune systems naturally have the potential to detect and fight all flavors of flu virus, they get tricked into fighting only strain-specific battles. The finding, published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, suggests that making a universal vaccine may require wising up our immune cells as well as outsmarting the virus.
The study, from a group of researchers led by Patrick Wilson of the University of Chicago, examined the immune responses of 21 people after exposures to the 2009 H1N1 virus (swine flu). Researchers specifically looked at participants’ B cells, which make antibodies that help fend off the flu by seeking out the virus and marking it for an attack, as well as seeking out the antibodies themselves.
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Every fall, millions of people roll up their sleeves for a flu vaccine, hoping to give their immune system a leg up on influenza. But the flu virus has thousands of strains that mutate and evolve across seasons, and the vaccine can’t guard against all of them. Now, two groups of researchers have independently created vaccines that lay the groundwork for a long-sought shot that could protect against every type of flu.
“This is really cutting-edge technology,” says Antonio Lanzavecchia, an immunologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who is unaffiliated with both studies. “There is still work to do, but this is a clear step forward and it’s headed in the right direction.”
Scientists develop flu vaccines by predicting the strains most likely to infect a population. They use year-round flu surveillance along with field reports from countries in the Southern Hemisphere to guess which strains are most likely to hit North America at the height of the flu season—December through March. But viral guesswork is a tricky business, and it’s impossible to be 100% right. This uncertainty makes for patchy protection, and as flu strains mutate over the course of the season, vaccines become less and less effective.
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