University of Michigan & Icahn-Led Research Pursues Stalk Antibodies for Universal Flu Vaccine

Jun 4, 2019 | Flu Vaccine, Flu Virus, Influenza, University of Michigan

Flu Virus

The University of Michigan recently released news summarizing what could be considered a “holy grail” for epidemiologists worldwide—a universal flu vaccine that could prevent a future influenza pandemic.

The Research

An international team of researchers from the University of Michigan, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and other institutions are in pursuit of an incremental step toward the development of a flu vaccine. Recently published in Nature Medicine, the team is working to prove that target a specific area of the flu virus does protect humans.

The flue virus is covered with two types of proteins: hemagglutinin and neuraminidase, after which they are named (H1N1, for example). The current flu vaccine targets the head of the hemagglutinin, a lollipop-like structure, which is the part that changes most often. Every flu season, researchers develop flu vaccines that target this part of the virus.

Targeting the Stem of Hemagglutinin Instead of the Head

The working researcher hypothesis is that targeting the stem of the hemagglutinin rather than the head would allow them to prevent a wider range of flu viruses, as the stem doesn’t change as often.

This approach has worked in animals but has never been tested in humans until now.

A Complex Affair

Experimental testing of flu vaccines on humans represents what can be considered a controversial activity as it requires healthy people to be infected. Moreover, a myriad of inclusion and exclusion criteria further complicates the effort as does the process of emulating the natural transmission of the flu.

The Nicaraguan Flu: Real World Data

Researchers for the current study focused on a naturally occurring influenza cases in a cohort investigators have followed in Nicaragua for years. After one member in a household was determined to have the flu, researchers took blood samples to test the rest of the household. They reviewed who was infected with the virus antibodies and who actually fell ill.

Professor Aubree Gordon noted, “Once someone in the house has been diagnosed, we go into the household very rapidly and then we followed them for two weeks to see who gets the flu.” The University of Michigan researcher continued, “That way we can see if they get infected (and if) they get sick.”

Increasing the Stalk Antibody Improves the Results

The researchers found that a rise of four times in the amount of stalk antibody levels correlated with 42% reduction in influenza infection: stalk antibodies do correlate with projection. Professor Gordon and the international team are pursuing “the idea that stalk antibodies may be able to provide protection against influenza and could enable scientists to design a broader, more effective influenza vaccine.”

Flexibility in Designing New Tests

This most recent research activity helps progress the idea that new tests can be used in flu research. The ability to leverage “ELISA based readouts as independent correlate of protection” for designing flu research represents a valuable pragmatic outcome of this study.

The Collaborators

The flu vaccine study truly represents a global, multi-stakeholder, collaborative enterprise. The team included:

Lead Institutions

  • University of Michigan
  • Icahn School of Medicine

Collaborative Institutions

St. Jude Center of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance Center

  • Center for Research on Influenza Pathogenesis and Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance


Both of the partners from Nicaragua are part of the national Ministry of Health and Sustainable Sciences Institute

  • Laboratorio Nacional de Virologia
  • Centro Nacional del Diagnostico Y Referencia and Cetro de Salud Socrates Flores Vivava


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