The emergence of pandemic influenza viruses poses a major public health threat. Therefore, there is a need for a vaccine that can induce broadly cross-reactive antibodies that protect against seasonal as well as pandemic influenza strains. Human broadly neutralizing antibodies directed against highly conserved epitopes in the stem region of influenza virus HA have been recently characterized. However, it remains unknown what the baseline levels are of antibodies and memory B cells that are directed against these conserved epitopes. More importantly, it is also not known to what extent anti-HA stem B-cell responses get boosted in humans after seasonal influenza vaccination. In this study, we have addressed these two outstanding questions. Our data show that: (i) antibodies and memory B cells directed against the conserved HA stem region are prevalent in humans, but their levels are much lower than B-cell responses directed to variable epitopes in the HA head; (ii) current seasonal influenza vaccines are efficient in inducing B-cell responses to the variable HA head region but they fail to boost responses to the conserved HA stem region; and (iii) in striking contrast, immunization of humans with the avian influenza virus H5N1 induced broadly cross-reactive HA stem-specific antibodies. Taken together, our findings provide a potential vaccination strategy where heterologous influenza immunization could be used for increasing the levels of broadly neutralizing antibodies and for priming the human population to respond quickly to emerging pandemic influenza threats.
Keywords: breadth; immunoglobulin; neutralization; stalk.