Genetics-Based Universal Vaccine Could Be Effective Against Any Viral Strain

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Instead of teaching the immune system to create antibodies to fight off a specific virus, the new vaccine would instead teach the body to create small signaling RNA proteins that will shut down harmful viral spread. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Genetics-based "one-and-done" vaccines for the flu and COVID-19 could prove more effective and easier to craft than current jabs, researchers report.

These new vaccines would target viruses using a different response to infection than what is prompted by current vaccines, researchers said.

Instead of teaching the immune system to create antibodies to fight off a specific virus, the new vaccine would instead teach the body to create small signaling RNA proteins that will shut down harmful viral spread.

This new approach could revolutionize current vaccine development, in which experts create vaccines based on predictions of which flu and COVID-19 strains are likely to be most infectious, researchers argue.

Instead, these RNA-promoting vaccines should be effective against all strains of a specific virus.

"What I want to emphasize about this vaccine strategy is that it is broad," said researcher Rong Hai, a virologist with University of California, Riverside. "It is broadly applicable to any number of viruses, broadly effective against any variant of a virus and safe for a broad spectrum of people."

"This could be the universal vaccine that we have been looking for," Hai added in a university news release.

Traditionally, vaccines use dead or live but modified virus to prompt an immune response from the body. This immune response teaches the body how to recognize a germ and produce antibodies that specifically target and kill that bug.

The new vaccine also uses a live, modified version of a virus, but it doesn't rely on the body having a traditional immune response that prompts the creation of antibodies, researchers said.

Instead, these vaccines teach the body to interfere with viral replication through the use of targeted RNA signaling proteins.

Everyone already has this natural response to infection, but viruses can produce their own proteins that block the body's RNA response, explained researcher Showei Ding, a professor of microbiology at University of California, Riverside. The new vaccine teaches the body how to get around this viral defense.

There's also little chance a virus could mutate to avoid this vaccine, Hia added.

"Viruses may mutate in regions not targeted by traditional vaccines. However, we are targeting their whole genome with thousands of small RNAs. They cannot escape this," Hai said.

One such vaccine injection created for a mouse virus called Nodamura protected lab mice from lethal doses of the virus for at least 90 days, researchers report. Nine mouse days are roughly equivalent to one human year.

The new study was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

University of California, Riverside, has been issued a U.S. patent on its new RNA vaccine technology, the researchers said.

The vaccine will be of particular help to newborns, who can't receive current vaccines because their immune systems are underdeveloped, as well as people with diseases that compromise their immune systems, researchers said.

"That's why our next step is to use this same concept to generate a flu vaccine, so infants can be protected," Ding said. "If we are successful, they'll no longer have to depend on their mothers' antibodies."

The new vaccine could also be delivered in the form of a spray, which will help people who are needle-shy.

"Respiratory infections move through the nose, so a spray might be an easier delivery system," Hai said.

Ultimately, this strategy could be used to "cut and paste" vaccines for any number of viruses, the researchers noted.

"There are several well-known human pathogens; dengue, SARS, COVID. They all have similar viral functions," Ding said. "This should be applicable to these viruses in an easy transfer of knowledge."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on how traditional vaccines work.

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