Universal vaccine against viruses in the making

In what could be a major boost for doctors and medical researchers in India battling deadly viral diseases such as dengue and Hepatitis C, scientists at the University of Southampton in UK have made a major discovery that brings them closer to developing a vaccine for such illnesses.

In a study published in Science Immunology, scientists were able to prove that global pathogens such as Zika, dengue and Hepatitis C can be recognised by natural killer (NK) cells, part of the human body’s immune system, through a single receptor called KIR2DS2. This receptor is able to target a non-variable part of the virus called the NS3 helicase protein which does not change unlike other proteins, thus allowing the NK cells to exterminate it after the immune system grabs hold of it. This is significant since some viruses are able to change their coat proteins thus allowing them to evade the antibodies and subsequently making vaccination harder.

Even though the research stage is very early and will require future clinical/animal trials, the findings are exciting, said lead researcher Salim Khakoo, who is also the professor of Hepatology.

“The NS3 helicase protein could be the key in unlocking the defense of lethal viruses that affect so many people around the world. It is very exciting to discover that other viruses similar to Hepatitis C, such as Zika virus, dengue virus, yellow fever virus, Japanese encephalitis virus and in fact all Flaviviruses, contain a region within their NS3 helicase proteins that is recognized by exactly the same KIR2DS2 receptor. We believe that by targeting this NS3 helicase region, we can make a new type of vaccine based upon natural killer cells, which can be used to help protect people from these infections,” said Khakoo in a statement.

DNA from more than 300 patients exposed to the Hepatitis C virus, in which was the receptor was seen to be successfully removing the virus, was analyzed by the research team. They were able to identify that the immune system, with the help of the receptor, can prevent the virus multiplying. The same mechanism could be used to tackle Zika and dengue viruses as well, the team concur.

“This is a well-presented study and a significant advancement in this field that identifies the important role of the receptor KIR2DS2. Since I come from India, which has thousands of cases of dengue each year, I can understand the suffering of patients with dengue. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to ease the suffering of these dengue-affected patients,” said Dr. Mumtaz Naiyer, the first author of the paper, in a statement.