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St. Louis scientists study if mRNA vaccines could make a stronger, faster flu shot

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Philana Liang, a participant in Washington University's clinical trial testing an mRNA flu vaccine, answers questions during a checkup at the school's infectious disease clinic in St. Louis in November.

Scientists at Washington University are seeking participants for a trial that would test if the same kind of vaccine used for the coronavirus could also work on the flu.

COVID-19 vaccines were the first widely used immunizations to employ a decades-old technology to create an immune response. These vaccines use mRNA molecules to teach an immune system how to respond to a virus, instead of using weakened or killed viruses to stimulate immunity.

If an mRNA vaccine method could work with the flu virus, it could mean scientists could respond to illnesses more quickly, creating more effective vaccines better matched to different viral strains, researchers said.

“With a traditional flu vaccine, you grow the strains of the flu and then inactivate them, and that’s just a long, long process,” said Dr. Rachel Presti, medical director of the Washington University Infectious Disease Clinical Research Unit and leader of the trial.

By using mRNA vaccines, scientists could produce flu shots much more quickly than they do now, she said.

“You don’t have to pick those strains in March, you could potentially pick them in July and August and have a vaccine deployable in late October,” Presti said.

With vaccines for a quickly evolving virus like the flu, speed is key, said Lynette Phillips, a professor at the University of School of Teaching Professions who is not involved with the Wash U trial.

“The main advantage in terms of public health is that an mRNA flu vaccine would mean we would not have to develop a new flu vaccine every year based on circulating strain,” she said.

The big question the trial seeks to answer, Presti said, is whether the strong immune responses to mRNA COVID vaccines in the majority of immunized people were due to the vaccine type or because the virus was one that people had never experienced before.

Many companies are studying mRNA flu vaccines. The one Washington University is testing is made by Moderna, which also made one of the three widely distributed COVID-19 vaccines.

If mRNA vaccine technology shows to be adaptable to the flu, it could mean that vaccines for other viruses, including herpes or shingles, could be developed quickly using the same method, the researchers said.

The trial is looking for people ages 18 to 50 and 65 to 80 who haven’t yet received a flu vaccine this year. Participants will get an mRNA flu vaccine or a traditional flu vaccine. Then, they’ll visit the clinic every few weeks to give blood, have their noses swabbed and report whether they’ve gotten sick or not.

Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Clinical trial participant Philana Liang squeezes a foam sweet pea while a health worker prepares to take blood samples. Liang is part of a clinical trial at Washington University that's studying whether a new type of vaccine could work for the flu.

Philana Liang, a physician’s assistant at the Wash U infectious diseases department, enrolled in the study as soon as she learned Presti and other colleagues were investigating the vaccines.

“This is something that I believe in passionately,” Liang said. “One of the great things about the mRNA platform is it gives us the ability to adapt quickly.”

Liang said she also wants to set an example for her patients.

“As a provider, would I recommend something to my patients that I wouldn’t do myself? And I wouldn’t!” she said. “I really want to do something that I would be able to say, ‘I’ve done this and it’s fine, and these are the reasons why.'”

Those who are interested in the trial can learn more by calling 314-454-0058 or emailing idcru@wustl.edu.

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.