Utrecht University: ERC Proof of Concept grant for Robert de Vries

Associate professor Robert de Vries has been awarded a Proof of Concept Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). The 150.000 Euro grant allows De Vries to bridge the gap between his pioneering research into influenza virus receptor binding specificities and apply these results to enable improved antigenic characterization. This is necessary as human influenza viruses have become ‘invisible’ in current assays.

The key to the new vaccine is engineering receptors on red blood cells. Human influenza viruses have evolved in the human population for over seven decades. Due to continuous changes in these viruses (think of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants), they lost the binding capacity to red blood cells. These viruses did however efficiently bound to complex sugars made during the ERC-STG grant.

Thus, a procedure was established to install these complex structures on red blood cells. These cells then enabled antigenic characterization of influenza viruses, revealing major mismatches in seasons before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.

Now with the return of influenza viruses, these cells will facilitate antigenic characterization to pick proper vaccine strains. This will increase vaccine efficiency, reduce production costs, better vaccine selection for each new flu season ahead, and eventually saves lives.