Experimental mRNA avian flu vaccine

Promising preclinical results from a new Penn Medicine study suggest an mRNA vaccine platform could limit the impact of avian flu pandemics.

An experimental mRNA vaccine against avian influenza virus H5N1 is highly effective in preventing severe illness and death in preclinical models. The vaccine could potentially help manage the outbreak of the H5N1 virus currently circulating in birds and cattle in the United States, and prevent human infections with the virus, according to research from the Perelman School of Medicine published in Nature Communications.

Scott Hensley and Drew Weissman.
Penn Medicine’s Scott Hensley (left) and Drew Weissman. (Image: Courtesy of Penn Medicine)

“The mRNA technology allows us to be much more agile in developing vaccines; we can start creating a mRNA vaccine within hours of sequencing a new viral strain with pandemic potential,” says Scott Hensley, a professor of microbiology. “During previous influenza pandemics, like the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, vaccines were difficult to manufacture and did not become available until after the initial pandemic waves subsided.” 

Hensley and his laboratory collaborated in the study with the laboratory of mRNA vaccine pioneer and Nobel Prize winner, Drew Weissman, the Roberts Family Professor in Vaccine Research and director of Vaccine Research at Penn Medicine. 

“Before 2020, experts thought the influenza virus posed the greatest risk of causing a pandemic, and we had limited options for creating a vaccine if that had happened,” says Weissman. “COVID-19 showed us the power of mRNA-based vaccines as a tool to protect humans from emerging viruses quickly, and we are better prepared now to respond to a variety of viruses with pandemic potential, including influenza.”

The Penn researchers developed an mRNA vaccine targeting a specific subtype of the H5N1 virus that is circulating widely in birds and cattle. While it rarely infects humans, some fear that the virus may evolve and cause a human pandemic.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.