An international team of scientists have designed a new generation of universal flu vaccines to protect against future global pandemics that could kill millions.
The vaccine could give protection for up to 88% of known flu strains worldwide in a single shot, spelling the end of the winter flu season. The collaboration involving the universities of Lancaster, Aston and Complutense in Madrid have applied ground-breaking computational techniques to design the vaccine in a study published in the leading journal Bioinformatics.
The researchers have devised two universal vaccines;
- a USA-specific vaccine with coverage of 95% of known US influenza strains
- a universal vaccine with coverage of 88% of known flu strains globally
Dr Derek Gatherer of Lancaster University said: “Every year we have a round of flu vaccination, where we choose a recent strain of flu as the vaccine, hoping that it will protect against next year’s strains. We know this method is safe, and that it works reasonably well most of the time.
“However, sometimes it doesn’t work – as in the H3N2 vaccine failure in winter 2014-2015 – and even when it does it is immensely expensive and labour-intensive. Also, these yearly vaccines give us no protection at all against potential future pandemic flu.” Previous pandemics include the “Spanish flu” of 1918, and the two subsequent pandemics of 1957 and 1968, which led to millions of deaths.
Even today, the World Health Organisation says that annual flu epidemics are estimated to cause up to half a million deaths globally. Dr Gatherer said: “It doesn’t have to be this way. Based on our knowledge of the flu virus and the human immune system, we can use computers to design the components of a vaccine that gives much broader and longer-lasting protection.”
Dr Pedro Reche of Complutense University said: “A universal flu vaccine is potentially within reach. The components of this vaccine would be short flu virus fragments – called epitopes – that are already known to be recognized by the immune system. Our collaboration has found a way to select epitopes reaching full population coverage.
Dr Darren Flower of Aston University said: “Epitope-based vaccines aren’t new, but most reports have no experimental validation. We have turned the problem on its head and only use previously-tested epitopes. This allows us to get the best of both worlds, designing a vaccine with a very high likelihood of success.”
The team are now actively seeking partners in the pharmaceutical industry to synthesize their vaccine for a laboratory proof-of-principle test.
Learn more: Universal flu vaccine designed by scientists
Aston began as the Birmingham Municipal Technical School in 1895, evolving into the UK’s first elite College of Advanced Technology in 1956. Aston University received its Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth II on 22 April 1966.
Aston was ranked by QS as the 47th best university in the world under 50 years old in 2012 and as the world’s 51st best university based on employer reputation in 2011. It was ranked 5th in the UK for graduate employability. A survey suggested it is one of the 20 most targeted universities by the UK’s top employers. Aston pioneered the integrated placement year concept over 50 years ago, with more than 70% of Aston students take placement year, the highest percentage in the UK. Aston students are the 24th most satisfied students out of 132 UK Universities, with the overall satisfaction level at 89% for the second year running. Aston University was responsible for educating 2.3 per cent of the UK’s millionaires, placing Aston among the top 10 UK universities for producing millionaires.
An Aston University academic has proposed a new process to decompose waste desalination brine using solar energy, neutralising ocean acidity and reducing damaging environmental impacts.
Although turning salty ocean water into fresh water is important to benefit poverty-stricken populations, desalination has a very damaging ecological footprint. Many environmental advocates see it as a last resort for retrieving fresh water, but fast growing populations mean it is becoming the only viable option. The amount of fresh water produced by desalination is predicted to double within the next decade to meet global demand.
Dr Philip Davies, of Aston’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, has devised a system using solar energy that could allow desalination plants to act as a sink, rather than a source of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and help to neutralise ocean acidity.
In Dr Davies’s model, magnesium chloride in waste brine is hydrolysed by energy generated by heliostat fields to magnesium oxide, which is discharged to the ocean. Due to its alkaline nature, this subsequently neutralises ocean acidity and gradually removes carbon dioxide through the conversion of magnesium oxide to bicarbonate, similar to ocean liming.
Although this approach increases the energy requirement of the plant by 50%, Dr Davies has calculated that this is offset by the carbon dioxide absorption capacity. His process would result in 0.4% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions being absorbed given a doubling in the current desalination capacity.
Scientists at Aston University and Russells Hall Hospital have discovered that an extract from a common plant in Pakistan may help cure breast cancer.
The plant, Fagonia cretica, and known as Virgon’s Mantlem, is commonly used in herbal tea. It has been traditionally used to treat women in rural Pakistan who have breast cancer, but up until now this treatment has been regarded as something of a folklore remedy. However, patients in Pakistan who have taken the plant extract have reported that it does not appear to generate any of the serious common side effects associated with other cancer treatments, such as loss of hair, drop in blood count or diarrhoea.
Now, scientists at Aston University in Birmingham and Russells Hall Hospital in Dudley have undertaken tests of the plant extract and proved that it kills cancer cells without damage to normal breast cells in laboratory conditions.
Professor Helen Griffith and Professor Amutul R Carmichael who lead the study are now aiming to identify which element or elements of the plant are responsible for killing the cancer cells with a view to eventually begin trails with human cancer patients.
Doubling the amount of fat removed
Nanodiamonds, pieces of carbon less than ten-thousandths the diameter of a human hair, have been found to help loosen crystallized fat from surfaces in a project led by research chemists at the University of Warwick that transforms the ability of washing powders to shift dirt in eco friendly low temperature laundry cycles.
These new findings tackle a problem that forces consumers to wash some of their laundry at between 60 and 90 degrees centigrade more than 80 times a year.
Even with modern biological washing powders, some fats and dirt cannot be removed at the lower temperatures many prefer to use for their weekly wash.
A desire to reduce the significant energy burden of regular high temperature washes, and understand the behaviour of these new materials, brought University of Warwick scientists and colleagues at Aston University together in a project funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and P&G plc.
This “Cold Water Cleaning Initiative” funded a group of chemists, physicists and engineers led by Dr Andrew Marsh in the University of Warwick’s Department of Chemistry to explore how new forms of carbon might work together with detergents in everyday household products.
Dr Andrew Marsh said: “We found that the 5 nanometre diamonds changed the way detergents behaved at 25 degrees centigrade, doubling the amount of fat removed when using one particular commercial detergent molecule.
“Even at temperatures as low as 15 degrees centigrade, otherwise hard-to-remove fat could be solubilised from a test surface.