Awarded through the Gates Foundation's Grand Challenge for Universal Influenza Vaccine Development competition, the grants of up to $2 million over two years will support efforts to develop a flu vaccine that could protect against various strains of influenza and would not need to be updated as frequently as strains mutate. At the Options for the Control of Influenza conference last week in Singapore, the Gates Foundation and Flu Lab — a charitable organization that invests in projects and initiatives to create actionable knowledge, stimulate cross-sector collaboration, and mobilize stakeholders to achieve transformative change — announced their plans to award grants totaling $12 million to as many as eight teams, with the remaining grants yet to be finalized. Flu Lab stepped in to replace Google co-founder Larry Page and his wife, Lucy, who originally had partnered with the Gates Foundation to fund the work.
Grant recipients announced last week include Alice McHardy of the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research (Braunschweig, Germany), who will work to design variants of the influenza surface protein neuraminidase, which is thought to promote a more robust and broadly neutralizing antibody response; Jonah Sacha of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University (Portland, Oregon), who proposes to insert a conserved influenza virus sequence into a stealth vector virus to stimulate a T cell immune response in the lungs; and Jonathan Heeney of the Laboratory of Viral Zoonotics at the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, United Kingdom), who will use an existing DNA vaccine approach for influenza.
The other recipients are Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Tokyo and the University of Wisconsin – Madison, who will use a cocktail of synthetic proteins designed to focus the immune system's response on parts of the flu that are common to all flu strains; Peter Kwong of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (Bethesda, Maryland), who will apply lessons from HIV research to identify sites of vulnerability suitable to the development of a universal vaccine; and Patrick Wilson of the Antibody Biology Lab at the University of Chicago, who will use antibodies produced by the body in response to flu to design a new protein sequence for use in a vaccine that provokes a broader antibody response.
According to STAT, the grant announcements were delayed a year when it became clear that the field wasn't close to designing a vaccine that would broadly protect against the flu strains that infect people every year and those in nature that could trigger a disruptive and deadly pandemic. The foundation had originally planned to notify successful grantees in August 2018.
"It became quite clear, looking at what we received, that this was too optimistic," said Gates Foundation pneumonia program director Keith Klugman. "And so that was the reason for a shift to a more basic science approach. There is literally nothing at the moment close enough that we saw that we thought we could pursue."