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Penn Medicine researchers' experimental vaccine could protect against all 20 known influenza virus subtypes. Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Penn Medicine researchers have developed a flu vaccine that can protect against all 20 subtypes of flu using the same mRNA technology pioneered at Penn to create Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines.

Influenza activity in Pennsylvania has been higher this season compared to the last five flu seasons, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Current flu vaccines are seasonal vaccines, meaning they only protect against recently circulating strains, but Penn Medicine researchers have developed a new multivalent flu vaccine that can protect against future strains, according to Penn Medicine News.

“The idea here is to have a vaccine that will give people a baseline level of immune memory to diverse flu strains, so that there will be far less disease and death when the next flu pandemic occurs,” Scott Hensley, a professor at the Perelman School of Medicine and the study’s primary author, said.

Hensley’s lab collaborated on the study with the lab of Penn professor Drew Weissman, who pioneered the breakthrough mRNA technology used to make Pfizer's and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines. Researchers used this same technology to create the new flu vaccine, which can encode certain antigens from all known influenza virus subtypes.

The mRNA-based vaccine is not expected to completely prevent viral infections, but it will elicit a memory immune response that can be quickly recalled and adapted to new pandemic-causing viral strains.

“For a conventional vaccine, immunizing against all these subtypes would be a major challenge, but with mRNA technology, it’s relatively easy,” Hensley said. 

The experimental vaccine yielded effective results in mice studies, eliciting high levels of antibodies and reacting to all 20 flu subtypes. Prior influenza exposure also did not lower the antibody response. Hensley and his colleagues are now designing human clinical trials to test this new multivalent flu vaccine.

“We think this vaccine could significantly reduce the chances of ever getting a severe flu infection,” Hensley said.