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EU Influenza Research  

Dr Xavier Saelens

Group Leader of the Molecular Virology Unit at Ghent University

Walter Fiers was born in Ieper, Belgium in 1931. After obtaining a degree of Engineer for Chemistry and Agricultural Industries at the University of Ghent (1954), he started his research career as an enzymologist in the laboratory of Laurent Vandendriessche in Ghent. He then worked in Copenhagen before obtaining a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and joining molecular biologist Bob Sinsheimer's group at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) as a post-doc in 1960.

Dr. Xavier Saelens, born in 1965, obtained a Bachelor's degree in Biology from Ghent University in 1985, where he later obtained a Master's degree in Biotechnology and a PhD in Biotechnology. He is currently a Lecturer in Virology and Group Leader of the Molecular Virology Unit at Ghent University. His current work surrounds the development and characterisation of novel influenza A and B vaccines. A major part of the research is focused on the characterisation and optimisation of an M2e-based vaccine. In particular the mechanism of action and the performance of M2e-based vaccines in animal models other than the mouse are unresolved questions that remain to be addressed.

This two-year cooperative research project, called Universal Vaccine, began in October 2005 and has received ‚1.2 million in funding under the Sixth Framework Programme of the European Commission. The unique combination of the three SMEs for the rational design of a mucosal influenza vaccine is unprecedented in European vaccine research. If the universal vaccine proves successful in clinical trials, it will not only help to diminish the social and economic costs of influenza, but also secure the growth and development of the European vaccine industry in the global market.

Dr. Saelens considers the Universal Vaccine program a key element in the battle against human/avian flu for one simple reason. Whereas other vaccines work by stimulating the body's immunity against the haemagglutinin (H) and neuraminidase (N) proteins on the virus' surface, the Universal Vaccine focuses on the M2 protein in the virus' outer coat. And while the H and N proteins are prone to mutation, with few exceptions, no change in the amino acid sequence of the M2 protein has been reported since influenza virus was first isolated in 1933. If this protein could stimulate an adequate immune response it might be possible to develop a broad-spectrum vaccine against all influenza A subtypes. Dr. Saelens is also excited at the prospect of helping to produce a vaccine that can be administered nasally. By stimulating the immune system at the site of influenza virus entry into the host, nasal vaccination may help to induce more effective and long lasting immunity in recipients. Furthermore, needle-free nasal sprays are safer and easier to administer, reduce the risk of contamination ‚ and are far less likely to deter people from participating in vaccination programmes.

UNIVERSAL VACCINE: Designing a nasally administered universal influenza vaccine

Dr. Xavier Saelens
Group leader Molecular Virology unit
Department for Molecular Biomedical Research
Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (V.I.B.)
and Ghent University (UGent)
'Fiers-Schell-Van Montagu' building
Technologiepark 927
B-9052 Ghent (Zwijnaarde) Belgium
Tel: +32 9 33 13 600
Fax: +32 9 33 13 609