These nanoparticles average just 300 billionths of a meter across and contain vaccine antigens. Larger image. Image courtesy of the Nanovaccine Institute.

New research suggests that a nanovaccine could replace the dreaded flu shot as the best method to fight off the annual influenza virus.

Researchers from Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Wisconsin-Madison—who are all affiliated with Iowa State’s Nanovaccine Institute—have collaborated on a research project to develop and test whether a new nanovaccine could be a better way to fight the flu virus.

“What we’re doing is a completely new approach,” Thomas Waldschmidt, Ph.D., the associate director of the Nanovaccine Institute, the Clement T. and Sylvia H. Hanson Chair in Immunology and a professor of pathology at Iowa, said in a statement. “This is a completely different ball game.”

The researchers loaded synthesized influenza proteins into nanoparticles—that are about 300 billionths of a meter across and are made from biodegradable polymers. They then incorporated the nanoparticles into a nasal spray and delivered it with a sniff.

The preliminary studies on mice, ferrets and pigs revealed that the nanovaccine will activate both kinds of immune cells—T cells and B cells—and provide protection in the upper and lower airways.

Current flu vaccines activate B cells and their production of antibodies—which circulate throughout the body and attack viruses by binding to them, coating them and disabling them. Antibodies also signal other defensive cells to attack and destroy the virus.

However, the rodent studies have shown that the flu nanovaccine drives B cell as well as T cell activity—which fight the disease by attacking cells that have been infected by a virus.

By activating both B cells and T cells, the researchers believe they can provide a greater level of protection against the virus.

The next step will be to test the vaccine in monkeys, whose respiratory tracts and immune systems are similar to those in human beings.

“Monkeys are there to give us confidence that what is found in mice studies is truly relevant to humans,” Thomas Friedrich, Ph.D., an associate professor of pathobiological sciences at Wisconsin, said in a statement. “And if problems are found in monkey studies, the vaccine can be tweaked to make it more effective before it goes to human trials.”

The researchers also plan to study how the nanovaccine provides protection and how the vaccine activates an immune response from B cells and T cells. They also will examine the nanovaccines effectiveness against different types of influenza including deadly strains like H5N1 or bird flu.