CAMBRIDGE — If you’re one of the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who get an annual flu shot, Sanofi Pasteur may have some good news.
Scientists at a local lab the drug company acquired eight years ago from vaccine maker Acambis PLC are working on a next-generation vaccine that could reengineer hemagglutinin — the most significant viral protein — to offer years of protection against multiple flu strains.
“We want to cover people for more than one season,” said Harold Kleanthous, associate vice president and head of North America research for Sanofi Pasteur. “The idea is to move away from annual vaccinations.”
Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine arm of French drug maker Sanofi SA, competes for global leadership in influenza vaccines with British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC, which is working on its own research programs aimed at designing a longer-acting “universal” vaccine.
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“It’s very, very promising,” said Bruce L. Innis, vice president and lead vaccines developer for influenza at GSK’s lab in Rockville, Md., whose team is working with academic scientists at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. While they plan to launch clinical trials in 2017, he said, “It will take a number of years to explore the potential of the vaccine.”
GSK last year acquired the Cambridge-based vaccines business of Switzerland’s Novartis AG, but its flu vaccine program was sold to another company. Sanofi Pasteur and GSK, along with smaller players, manufacture annual flu vaccines.
Now the race is on to come up with a longer-lasting flu shot.
It’s challenging to prepare a multiyear flu vaccine because viruses change from season to season. To overcome that obstacle, Sanofi Pasteur scientists are exploring a synthetic vaccine derived from key genetic sequences of many flu viruses, effectively stimulating the immune system to fend off strains likely to arise.
“We’ll see if it’s science fiction or an achievable target,” said industry analyst Seamus Fernandez, managing director at Boston health care investment bank Leerink Partners. “If it succeeds, it will likely change the market for flu vaccines in a meaningful way.”
While flu vaccines account for about 25 percent of Sanofi’s vaccine business, the company also markets vaccines targeting about 20 other viral and bacterial diseases, from yellow fever and dengue to tuberculosis and typhoid fever. Global sales at Sanofi Pasteur rose 14 percent in the most recent quarter, outpacing Sanofi as a whole.
Influenza remains a major health hazard in the United States, accounting for up to 49,000 deaths and 200,000 hospital visits a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Eventually, vaccine makers like Sanofi Pasteur and GSK hope to develop and market so-called universal vaccines providing lifelong protection.
“The holy grail would be one vaccine or a cocktail of vaccines that would protect against every virus that comes out every year till the end of time,” said Kleanthous.
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Sanofi Pasteur’s Eliud Oloo discussed research on improving flu vaccines at the firm’s Cambridge lab.
On a recent day, scientists working in a data visualization studio in the company’s bioinformatics lab here wore 3D glasses and stared at red, blue, yellow, and purple clumps of proteins that seemingly popped out of a 6-by-9-foot screen.
“That red protein allows the virus to infect your cells,” said Eliud Oloo, the Sanofi Pasteur manager for bioinformatics and genomics discovery in North America. “We want to stop it.”
Their mission is to design a molecule that can stimulate the human immune system to generate antibodies that recognize multiple flu strains.
“Our goal is to improve upon and replace the standard of care,” said Josh DiNapoli, deputy director of North American viral immunology research at Sanofi Pasteur.