Scientists have developed a new drug to combat influenza — including resistant strains of the virus that are difficult to treat.
In a new report published in the journal Science, an international team of researchers headed by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) said laboratory studies of the new drug found it to be effective in preventing the spread of different strains of influenza.
As a result, it could be a potent new weapon against dangerous new strains of the virus — such as bird flu and swine flu — as well those that are difficult to treat with existing drugs.
"CSIRO researchers have shown that flu viruses continually mutate and some have become resistant to available treatments," said Jenny McKimm-Breschkin, M.D., who helped conduct the research with experts from the University of British Columbia and the University of Bath. "The new drug is effective against these resistant strains ... [and] is expected to be effective even against future flu strains.
"With millions of poultry currently infected with 'bird flu' globally, there are still concerns about its adaptation and potential to spread among humans, causing the next pandemic."
The scientists explained that flu viruses infect cells by binding with sugars on the cell surface. To spread, the viruses need to remove those sugars. But the new drug blocks that process, effectively preventing the virus from removing sugars and spreading to infect more cells.
According to the World Health Organization, influenza kills approximately 500,000 people each year.
"Despite recent improvements in vaccine production, when a new strain of flu emerges it can take several months before vaccines are available to the public," said Steve Withers, a University of British Columbia scientist who helped lead the research team.
Although further studies are required to determine efficacy of the new drug against a broader range of flu strains, he said the new study’s findings are promising.
"This antiviral drug would play an important role as the first line of defence in modulating disease severity and in controlling a pandemic while vaccines are prepared."
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