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Goal: increase the effectiveness of flu vaccines to fight the number of flu deaths.

Researcher Federica Sicca

The flu causes thousands of deaths every year

Every year about five to ten per cent of the population gets influenza, the "real" flu. Unlike most "normal" colds, it is a serious infectious disease which is highly contagious. In the Netherlands, influenza is responsible for the deaths of  about 1,500 people annually, and between 290.000 and 650.000 worldwide, depending on the severity of the flu wave. Flu vaccination helps prevent infection, but current vaccines have only an effectiveness of 50 to 60 per cent. Researcher Federica Sicca aims to improve this statistic with her research on immunity development in different age groups.

We need customized flu vaccinations

"Every person builds their own flu history,” explains Federica. "That history influences the effect of a vaccine. Most people have had the flu at least once in their lives and as a result have developed antibodies specific for a particular virus strain. With each subsequent influenza infection, these and new antibodies play a role in how the immune system reacts. It is a very complex mechanism, which we do not yet fully understand, also because flu viruses are constantly mutating. Sometimes, for example, your immune system is mistaken, it does not recognize that a virus strain is new and not a variant of an old strain and it produces "old" antibodies. This reaction of the immune system actually has a negative effect." In addition, the response varies per age group. In children, the immune system is hardly experienced and therefore very receptive; in the elderly, it is often worn out and may respond much less to new virus variants. "If that's the case, you have to take age into account in the composition of the flu vaccination," says Federica.

How Federica will tackle the issue

Federica’s research focuses on individuals from three different age groups over an extended period of time. For this, she wants to use LifeLines, the unique biobank with health data and samples from more than 167,000 people in the north of the Netherlands. "You have access not only to blood samples from the same individuals over a long period, but also a great deal of extra information based on questionnaires they have filled in, in which they indicate, for example, whether they have had the flu in a certain period or whether they received any vaccination.

The use and analysis of the data from LifeLines costs around € 36,000. Federica can pay part of this from her research group's budget but unfortunately not everything. That is why she seeks support through the Ubbo Emmius Fund of the University of Groningen / the Groningen University Funds. 'We expect to gain insight into the number of antibodies in children, adults and the elderly, how this number changes over the years in an individual, whether antibodies respond to one or more virus strains, and to what extent the first strain with which someone comes into contact determines later immune responses upon re-encountering with the virus. This  knowledge is essential for the further optimization of flu vaccinations. "

With your help, Federica can research how to increase the effectiveness of flu vaccines.

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