Researchers receive $12 million grant to develop flu vaccine against many viral strains

Patrick Wilson, PhD, professor of medicine and rheumatology at the University of Chicago, and a group of researchers from three other institutions have received a Grand Challenge for Universal Influenza Vaccine Development grant – a $12 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Flu Lab.

The group will receive up to $2 million over two years to pursue an innovative research project that will help develop a flu vaccine that protects broadly against many strains of the virus.

Wilson heads a collaborative effort including four other research teams led by Sarah Cobey, PhD, associate professor of ecology and evolution at UChicago; Florian Krammer from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; Jesse Bloom from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center; and Ian Wilson and Andrew Ward from the Scripps Research Institute.

Their project, called MOsaic Natural Selective Targeting of Immune Responses (MONSTIR), is a new approach to create a universal flu vaccine from a combination, or mosaic, of proteins from different segments of multiple virus strains. The vaccine's makeup will be based on actual human immune responses to flu epidemics over the past several years.

Since flu viruses mutate and change from year to year, the researchers will focus on strains where antibodies bind to more conserved or protected sites of the virus that are less likely to change over time. This includes hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins, two common targets for vaccine research, from both common human flu strains and zoonotic strains, or those that cross over from animals and spread to human populations.

"It's like building a Frankenstein's monster of flu proteins, and thus the MONSTIR acronym," Wilson said. "The goal of the Grand Challenge is to fund novel, higher risk ideas like this that we can now explore with this new collaboration. It's exciting to have the backing of the Gates Foundation and Flu Lab."

The funders, the GatesFoundation and Flu Lab, recognize that the development of a longer-lasting and more broadly effective flu vaccine requires innovative approaches across a variety of disciplines – including those beyond the traditional flu community.

To identify new, transformative concepts that could lead to the development of a universal flu vaccine, the Grand Challenge for Universal Influenza Vaccine Development launchedin April 2018 with a call for researchers from any field to submit innovative ideas for developing safe, effective, affordable flu vaccines.

To receive funding, Wilson andother Grand Challenges winners completed a rigorous application process to propose a bold new approach for developing a universal flu vaccine. On the demonstration of promising proof-of-concept data, grantees may be invited to apply for additional funding.

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