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First impressions matter: New insights into long-term influenza prevention

First impressions matter: New insights into long-term influenza prevention

 


Researchers have made an important discovery that could explain why some people experience more severe flu infections than others.

The study, led by Dr Marios Koutsakos, a research fellow in the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne and published in Nature Microbiology, found that people develop a stronger immune response to variants of influenza B that they were infected with as children. Early infection with the virus affects the immune system's ability to recognise and defend against new variants.

If a new influenza B variant shares similar characteristics with strains that were circulating during the first 5 to 10 years of an individual's life, that person's body will mount a stronger immune response than if it were a strain with many differences.

Previous epidemiological studies have pointed out that susceptibility and severity of influenza infection vary depending on the year of birth, suggesting an association between exposure to influenza in childhood and subsequent lifelong immune responses to the virus.

“The aim of our study was to provide strong immunological evidence to support these observations,” said Peta Edler, a research assistant in biostatistics at the University of Melbourne's Doherty Institute and lead author of the paper.

The researchers analyzed samples taken from people born in Australia and the United States between 1917 and 2008. Specifically, they measured and compared antibodies to influenza B strains that circulated around the world between 1940 and 2021.

“Using this comprehensive dataset, we found that the highest concentrations of antibodies in each sample generally corresponded to the predominant strain of influenza B virus that was circulating during that individual's childhood,” Edler said.

“Fundamentally, when it comes to influenza B virus infection, first impressions matter. Initial exposure to the virus during childhood appears to influence how the immune system responds to future influenza B viruses.”

Influenza type B, while generally less common than influenza type A infections, accounts for a significant proportion of cases each year and is associated with high morbidity and mortality, especially in children and people under 18 years of age.

According to Dr. Koutsakos, establishing an immunological link between initial exposure to influenza B and long-term immune responses could pave the way for new avenues of vaccination and public health responses to manage these risks.

“Our study can help predict which populations are at highest risk of illness each flu season and may inform the development of public health strategies targeted at specific age groups,” Dr. Koutsakos said.

“Next, we would like to explore what drives this long-term immunity and understand whether our immune system works in the same way after a first influenza A infection. This research may not only discover potential targets for new vaccine design, but also help with customized vaccination strategies.”

Peer review: Edler P, et al. Early life immune imprinting shapes cross-reactivity to influenza B virus hemagglutinin. Nature Microbiology (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41564-024-01732-8

Funding: National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council, National Institutes for Health (USA), Clifford Craig Foundation, Research Grants Council (Hong Kong), Michaelson Foundation for Medical Research, Monash University, University of Melbourne, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) (USA).

Collaborations: This study was a multi-institutional collaboration between the Doherty Institute, University of Melbourne, Monash Biomedical Discovery Institute, Deep Den Surgery and the University of Tasmania.

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2/ https://www.doherty.edu.au/news-events/news/new-insights-into-long-term-protection-from-flu

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