MedImmune Inc., the maker of the nasal flu vaccine FluMist, said yesterday that it will collaborate with National Institutes of Health researchers to develop a library of vaccines for more than a dozen strains of avian flu.
Public health officials have been racing to contain a lethal strain of bird flu circulating in Southeast Asia that is jumping from birds to humans and raising concern that it could become a pandemic, as many researchers think it could.
The government recently awarded a $100 million contract to Sanofi-Aventis SA for an undisclosed number of vaccines that target the current strain circulating, called H5N1. But there are about 16 strains of bird flu, and the government wants Gaithersburg-based MedImmune to create vaccines for each.
"We are trying to prepare for the other potential strains that might take over our attention," said Kathleen Coelingh, MedImmune's senior director of scientific affairs. "We want to have a library against the various forms, so we can pull them off the shelf in the future."
Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the NIH, said in an interview that FluMist may have more advantages than traditional flu vaccines because it uses a live but weakened version of the virus to induce immunity.
Researchers think live vaccines induce a broad range of coverage that can protect people even if the molecular structure of the virus changes to become a new strain.
"You get more cross-protection," Coelingh said. "It doesn't have to be a perfect match."
MedImmune and the NIH will make the new vaccines using reverse genetics. Researchers will obtain samples of the 16 strains, then reproduce the key protein that attaches to nasal passages, causing infections. The engineered protein is essentially then attached to the FluMist vaccine, like changing wheels on a car.
Coelingh said it could take several years to complete the library. MedImmune will focus initially on the current strain and a couple of others that are circulating.
The financial implications for the partnership are unclear. Yesterday's deal was for the research collaboration, not for the commercial aspects of selling whatever vaccines might be produced. Still, MedImmune shares closed yesterday up $1.65, at $33.23.
MedImmune stock has risen 24 percent in the past month, following a stream of news including new partnerships, an acquisition, and potential new products.