Your winter may become a bit more pleasant. Goodbye stomach flu?

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Screen Shot 2015-03-27 at 1.39.13 PMThere is a saying about the erroneously named stomach flu or winter vomiting disease: It doesn t kill you, but you may wish that it did. Not only is the name wrong, but so is the saying.

The heinous culprit that causes 1-2 days of utter misery is norovirus, which is short for Norwalk Virus. (It was first characterized in 1968 in Norwalk, Ohio). Too bad they didn't keep it there.

Although norovirus isn't even remotely related to influenza, they both provide a tough challenge for vaccine researchers antigenic drift, aka mutation. Both viruses are especially good at mutating, and this causes the failure of vaccines, since they are designed to protect against a strain of virus that may be just different from the original strain to defeat the vaccine.

Norovirus is even worse in this regard, since it mutates so rapidly that you can catch the same bug you already had a few months later. Ick.

And, if this isn't bad enough, it is generally regarded as the most (or one of the most) infectious of all pathogens. It has been estimated that as little as 10-100 virus particles are sufficient to cause infection. This is a very low number.

While in developed countries, norovirus is not typically fatal (except in elderly populations), this is far from true in the undeveloped world. Worldwide, there are an estimated 300 million cases (20 million in the US) each year, leading to 260,000 deaths, especially in areas where rehydration is not readily available

With a little luck, this may change.

Using cell cultures, it is possible to artificially construct the outer shell (capsid) of norovirus into what are called virus-like particles (VLPs) essentially the outside of the virus without the guts. Multiple varieties of these constructs can be made and combined, which could theoretically induce an immune response to the multiple strains that exist in the real world in other words, a vaccine. Since there is nothing within the capsid, VLPs cannot cause infection.

Researchers have been focusing on the VLP method for years with varying success, but scientists at the University of North Carolina may have hit the jackpot. Lead author Dr. Lisa Lindesmith writing in PLOS describes a series of trials in which vaccines consisting of multiple variants of VLPs caused a strong immune response the formation of antibodies against a broad range of norovirus strains.

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom, a former researcher in the antiviral field says, This looks very promising, but we need to keep in mind that the trials were small, and did not include population groups such as the very young and elderly. But, what is really crazy about the results is that the VLP vaccines provided protection against previously-unknown strains of the virus, which were not even included in the vaccine. If you want to know how this works, I suggest you ask someone else, because I sure don't have an explanation for this.

Dr. Bloom has written numerous times about norovirus research, most recently on the Science 2.0 site.