A new discovery could bring the medical research community closer to developing one vaccine that could target a variety of global pathogens.

Researchers from the University of Southampton learned that an integral part of the body’s immune system called natural killer cells (NK cells) can use a single receptor called KIR2DS2 to identify many different viruses like Zika, dengue, and hepatitis C.

The team analyzed DNA from more than 300 patients exposed to the Hepatitis C virus. Findings indicated the KIR2DS2 receptor was associated with successfully clearing virus.

This mechanism of action was due in part to targeting a non-variable part of the virus called the NS3 helicase protein, which plays an important role in letting the virus work properly. This specific protein does not change when an infection occurs compared to other proteins so the immune system is able to latch onto it and let the NK cells attack the threat.

More tests demonstrated this mechanism could be a vital target in different viruses like Zika and dengue, which also host a region within their NS3 helicase protein that is recognized by the KIR2DS2 receptor.

“We believe that by targeting this NS3 helicase region, we could make a new type of vaccine based upon natural killer cells, which can be used to help protect people from these infections,” said lead researcher Salim Khakoo, professor of hepatology at the University of Southampton, in a statement.

Khakoo’s team cautioned that this research is still an early stage and animal studies/clinical trials will be needed to test the findings.

However, they plan on conducting more experiments to determine whether these KIR2DS2+ NK cells are protective during acute flaviviral infections potentially leading to a vaccine that targets natural killer cells.

Also, Khakoo believes a similar process could work for cancer.

"Cancer treatments that use the body's own immune system are becoming more common. Our findings present a completely new strategy for virus therapeutics which could be easily translated into the field of cancer. The next few years are going to be very exciting in this field,” said the professor.

The study was published in the journal Science Immunology.