As flu season creeps closer, researchers continue to work on creating flu vaccines that can help the public in case of an epidemic.
The Center for Disease Control recommends that everyone older than six months get a flu shot each year, and some said this year’s flu season could be especially hard hitting.
TEKTON Research in Austin is testing a vaccine that could be made faster than the current vaccine, using a plant many people might not associate with health benefits: tobacco.
George Miles got his trial flu vaccination at TEKTON Research on Monday.
"This is the first time I've ever taken the flu shot,” said Miles.
It's part of a clinical trial that tests a new type of flu vaccine.
TEKTON Medical Director Greg Lucksinger said, currently, the flu vaccine is made by growing the flu virus in a chicken egg.
"It's very time consuming, extremely expensive, and difficult to produce flu virus in chicken eggs,” said Lucksinger. "Everyday when they do that, they literally use millions of eggs, and it can take many weeks."
But this trial vaccine would make proteins in a tobacco plant. It would tell your immune system that something is wrong, and it needs to fight back.
"It's making some proteins that are found in flu viruses -- that are the ones that signal our immune system that something is wrong and you need to make a response," said Lucksinger.
He adds that this could help more people if there was an outbreak in the future.
"They're trying to find ways to make the vaccine faster, cheaper, so they can make a more nimble response to outbreaks,” said Lucksinger. "Flu vaccine obviously is critical to controlling outbreaks. It's really the only good tool we have, other than trying to avoid infection by washing hands, and wearing masks -- things like that."
He said it may also open doors to some patients who couldn’t take the typical flu vaccine in the past.
"An added advantage with this production method is people that are allergic to chicken egg protein, that cannot normally safely receive the vaccine, should be able to take this vaccine,” said Lucksinger.
Site Manager Blaire Graham said they’re planning to vaccinate 150 people in Austin this week, who will be part of thousands across the country participating in the trial.
She said they're vaccinating those who are healthy between 18 and 64 but need more volunteers between the ages of 50 and 64.
"We want to replicate it as much as we can to the real world,” said Graham.
She said they also can only do the trial during this time of year when people are traditionally getting a flu vaccine.
"They want everyone to be vaccinated at a normal time for prevention of the flu,” said Graham.
Then she said they will follow up with those who are on the trial over the next few months.
"The plan after vaccination is to actually monitor them throughout flu season to see if they get the flu,” said Graham.
Lucksinger said it's important to note that the vaccine doesn't have nicotine or tobacco in it.
"You're not injecting any of the plant proteins, they're just using the plant as basically a bio logical factory to make these flu virus proteins,” said Lucksinger.
Lauren Foreman is a Clinical Research Coordinator.
"We have taken something that we historically associate with negativity, like tobacco, and they've used it for something really positive, and for the future of medicine,” said Foreman.
"It is kind of a neat thing to take a plant from a family of plants that has caused so much damage to people's health for so many hundreds of years, and use it to potentially save lives,” said Lucksinger.
A positive move Miles hopes can make a difference.
"We're helping the rest of the world in the future, you know with this vaccine,” said Miles. "Hope it helps everybody."
That’s something Doctor Lucksinger said wouldn't be possible without volunteers like Miles.
"Anytime we get a new treatment or vaccine, to market, so that doctors can use it to help people, it's only possible because we have volunteers that come and do these studies,” said Lucksinger.
"Our patients can contribute to research and make a little extra cash, so it's kind of a win win,” said Foreman.
You can contact TEKTON Research to sign up for the trial at 512.388.5717 or visit TektonResearch.com.
Lucksinger said it will still take a few years before the vaccine would ever hit the shelves in your local pharmacy.
As for our flu season in Central Texas this year, Dr. Albert Gros, the Chief Medical Officer of St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, told KVUE we may face an intense flu season this year because Australia has had an unusually high number of cases this season. He said the predominant strain seems to be H3N2, which appears to have the least response to vaccines. But he still recommends getting a vaccine this year, and avoiding contact with all those who are infected.
He said they typically see the first flu cases in October, and a peak in February.
According to Dr. Gros, symptoms can start with what may seem like a cold, such as congestion, a cough, a headache, a fever, body aches, and shaking chills.
He said if symptoms last more than 7 days, or you suspect you may also have a sinus or respiratory infection, contact your doctor.