Researchers at The Pirbright Institute, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Oxford working together as the Jenner Institute, have taken an important step towards a universal vaccine against avian influenza. This virus disease threatens the £8 billion poultry industry in the UK and poses a risk of new human strains of flu. The research is published ‘In Press’ in the journal Vaccine.
Dr Colin Butter led the research, he said “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. This research suggests that in principle a universal vaccine is possible.”
Poultry meat is the most popular source of protein across the world and is increasingly in demand in the burgeoning economies of South and East Asia. With the global population set to reach 9 billion by 2050, food security is in jeopardy and improving poultry production by controlling disease will be a very important solution to this problem.
Avian influenza is a significant health and welfare issue in the poultry industry and avian strains can evolve to infect humans. The development of a universal vaccine for poultry could help strategies, also being pioneered by the Jenner Institute, to prevent seasonal flu or control any future pandemic in humans.
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.
Dr Butter continued “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 into eggs while the chick is still developing and then give a booster injection after hatch. 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 of work 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 the scourge of a disease that is still a killer in both populations.