A common food additive has been shown to block the spread of a deadly new strain of bird flu.
New research reported in the Public Library of Science journal PLOS ONE found the preservative — known as tert-butyl hydroquinone — blocks the new strain of avian influenza virus from infecting healthy cells.
Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine who conducted the study said the federally approved compound, widely used in the food industry, binds to a part of the flu virus that is not targeted by any existing antiviral medications, raising hopes for its effectiveness against multi-drug-resistant flu viruses.
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"The recent H7N9 outbreak in China this past March had a mortality rate of more than 20 percent," said Michael Caffrey, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UIC, noting the strain is already showing resistance to drugs used to treat it. "The need to develop new antiviral therapeutics now is crucial."
Flu viruses infect cells using a special protein called hemagglutinin — a molecular "key" that opens receptors on the cell surface to the viral agents. But hemagglutinin is disabled, the virus is locked out and can't infect cells. Caffrey and his team found the food additive "attaches to the Achilles' heel of the virus — a loop-shaped portion of hemagglutinin necessary for binding to cells, making cell infection impossible."
He added: "Any drugs that focus on the hemagglutinin loop would be totally novel to flu viruses, and so resistance, if developed, would still be a long way off."
The researchers are now looking for ways to enhance the preservative's ability to prevent infection, such as by adding it to poultry feed. That could keep the virus from spreading in chickens and reduce the likelihood of it jumping to humans, Caffrey said.
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