UMMS expert seeks better flu vaccines

Finberg and team work on proactive approach to vaccine design

By James Fessenden and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

January 10, 2013

An internationally recognized expert in viruses, Robert W. Finberg, MD, the Richard M. Haidack Professor of Medicine and chair and professor of medicine, is lead investigator on a $12 million project to develop new ways of predicting how the influenza virus changes and evolves in response to anti-viral drugs and the human immune system. This approach has promise for becoming a pivotal tool in creating a more effective vaccine against the virus.

“Historically, flu vaccines are made from strains that are currently circulating,” said Dr. Finberg. “What we’re trying to do is determine what the future virus will be.”

The influenza virus is a highly contagious, acute respiratory illness that infects an average of 10 percent of the population annually and can infect as much as 50 percent of the population in severe years. This year’s vaccine, as is typical, is derived from the most recent cases of the flu available. It provides protection against infection for roughly 60 percent of people who receive it.

The ability to predict and more accurately select which strains of influenza are likely to cause severe illness in humans could markedly improve the effectiveness of the vaccine.

Deep genetic sequencing of the influenza virus before and after it has been exposed to environmental pressures such as anti-viral drugs provides one approach. Finberg hopes the research will help predict how the virus evolves to escape the immune systems’ defenses.

Finberg is leading the project, which seeks to develop new technologies to predict natural viral evolution. The project is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, through its Prophecy Program.