Every year November comes and you pile into the local flu clinic to get stabbed in the arm, sometimes by a vengeful health worker, to prevent yourself from getting the seasonal flu. As you’re nursing your bloody stab wound in the waiting area of the flu clinic, have you ever considered why for some illnesses you need only be vaccinated once as a child to convey lifelong protection, while for others (like the pesky flu) you have to get a shot in the arm every year?
There are a variety of reasons for this, but the reason we need to get a flu shot every year is because the influenza virus is a tricky little shit. It mutates the proteins on its surface rapidly, and the surface proteins of this virus are what our body makes antibodies out of to protect against infection.
One of the most important surface proteins it mutates is called HA, or hemagglutinin. This protein looks like a pretty flower; it has a head (the flower) and a stem. When our bodies make antibodies against the flu (including the antibodies your body makes when you are vaccinated against the flu), it makes them specific to bind the head of the HA protein, the flower, not the stem. Therefore, because the head of the protein is so variable and changes constantly, we need a new vaccine every year.
However, researchers at the University of British Columbia have made an interesting finding regarding the antibodies of people infected with the H1N1 strain of the virus. HINI is the strain of influenza responsible for that swine flu pandemic back in 2009. You know? That pandemic we all laughed about when it was over because it didn’t kill many people, but those who became infected (like myself) had the worst flu-caused, fever-induced hallucinations imaginable?
They have found that those that were infected with the H1N1 produced a large number of antibodies to the stem of the HA protein, not to the head. This is an incredibly valuable find because the stem is significantly less variable than the head of the protein, and can convey protective immunity (ie. you don’t get all snot-nosed) against a variety of flu strains. Do you see what this could mean? Fewer pokes in the arm, and happier health care workers! In the future, we may not need a seasonal flu-vaccine, at all. If we are able to produce antibodies to the stem region from various flu viruses we could give ourselves immunity to nearly every influenza virus, and wouldn’t that be a thing of beauty?
Read the full study here.