Getting an annual flu vaccine is an important step to staying healthy. That’s because it can protect 60 to 90 percent of healthy adults from getting the illness.
The vaccine does, however, have its drawbacks, such as being defenseless against different strains of flu. Plus, the very young and the elderly don’t seem to get the full vaccination benefit.
Though the flu vaccine has existed since the 1940s, scientists still don’t fully understand how it works to create an effective immune response—and that information could go a long way toward improving the vaccine in the most vulnerable people.
Discovering How Flu Vaccines Work
Hideki Ueno, M.D., PhD, an investigator at Baylor Research Institute (BRI), and Octavio Ramilo, M.D., principal investigator and chief of infectious diseases at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, have been working toward this end.
In their research, they gave healthy children and adults the flu vaccine and then tracked cell types over time.
This research is part of a multi project grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (one of the National Institutes of Health) that was awarded to Karolina Palucka, M.D., PhD, an investigator at Baylor Research Institute (BRI) and the director of the Ralph M. Steinman Center for Cancer Vaccines.
“We discovered a particular type of immune cells within those patients, called CD4 T cells, that are activated upon vaccination,” Dr. Ueno says.
“These cells boost production of existing antibodies that fight flu, but don’t promote production of new antibodies.”
In other words, the flu vaccine helps people with some immunity fight flu more effectively, but for those without that base immune response, like infants who have not yet been exposed to the flu, it’s much less effective.
For some reason, the elderly also don’t experience a protective antibody response from flu vaccination and scientists aren’t entirely sure why.
“It might be associated with an inability to generate this special type of CD4 T cells that help with production of antibodies,” Dr. Ueno says.
A Future Without the Flu?
Understanding the importance of these cells for effective flu vaccination means that Baylor researchers now have another piece of the puzzle for the development of a more effective vaccine for new strains of flu and for people who have compromised immune systems.
“Future studies will help us understand the mechanisms by which this particular type of CD4 T cell develops,” Dr. Ueno says.
“And that information could lead to the development of more effective vaccines in the future.”
Visit BaylorHealth.com/AdvancingMedicine to learn more about research trials at Baylor seeking participants.