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Oxford University, through its innovation arm Oxford University Innovation (OUI), has entered into an option agreement for a universal influenza vaccine with US-based startup Blue Water Vaccines (BWV), which is raising $15m to support development of the flu shot.

Developed by scientists at the University’s Department of Zoology the vaccine protects against all influenza strains by targeting parts of the virus that induce a protective immune response but are also limited in variability. The technology has the potential of providing life-long immunity against flu.

Influenza is a major respiratory pathogen. It is estimated that there are over almost 500,000 deaths a year caused by influenza, with somewhere between three to five million severe caseless of illness annually. The virus is estimated to cost $87.1bn in absenteeism in the US alone. Current influenza vaccines target highly variable epitopes of the virus which evolve and change annually, meaning flu vaccines need to be updated and redistributed every season while only typically providing protection to 50% of the individuals who receive it. Conversely, the universal flu vaccine developed at Oxford University targets epitopes that are both naturally immunogenic and limited in variability, allowing for a vaccine that protects against all influenza strains and avoids the need to be regularly updated.

The vaccine, which covers all influenza A and B strains is, is approaching clinical studies and could feasibly enter Phase I trials by the end of 2019. Under the terms of the deal, Blue Water Vaccines has the option to exclusively license the universal influenza vaccine should it hit its fundraising milestones. The company is currently raising $15M and plans to invest in continuing research into the vaccine at Oxford University.

Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, said: "About 10 years ago, we predicted that regions of the virus that were limited in variability would drive the evolution of influenza. Using mathematical models, we showed that these regions would cycle between a limited number of conformations in time, in tandem with the development of immunity within the human population. Due to their limited variability and the ease with which immunity can be built up against them, such regions make ideal vaccine targets."

Craig Thompson, Postdoctoral Research Scientist in Virology at Oxford University, added: "These regions have been recently identified and shown by our lab to dictate immunity to influenza in various age groups of humans. Astonishingly, laboratory assays used to detect antibodies showed that young children aged 6 to 12 had immunity to historical influenza strains that they could never have possibly experienced, one of which last circulated in 1934!"

Christine Whyte, Senior Licensing and Ventures Manager, Oxford University Innovation, added: “This is an exciting opportunity for OUI to commercialise a new vaccine approach to preventing influenza arising from ground breaking work that has changed our understanding of the how the virus evolves. I am delighted to have facilitated a strong collaboration between Blue Water Vaccines and Oxford University, which will support continuing research by the academic team in the Zoology Department, with plans to carry out the first trials of the vaccine with the Oxford Vaccine Group.”

Joseph Hernandez, Executive Chairman of Blue Water Vaccines, said: "This paradigm shifting technology has the potential to save the lives of millions of patients around the world who fall victim to influenza infections. We look forward to working and supporting the amazing team at Oxford to bring this technology to patients around the world.”

Story courtesy of the University of Oxford News Office

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