Is medicine for the flu coming? | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 25.10.2019
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Science

Is medicine for the flu coming?

For now, the only protection we have against influenza viruses is a vacccine. When that doesn't work, we must rely on resting, tea drinking and sweating. But we could soon be fighting the flu with an effective drug, too.

According to estimates by the World Health Organization (WHO), about one billion people worldwide fall ill with influenza every year. In three to five million cases, the disease takes a severe course. Between 290,000 and 650,000 die as a result of the associated respiratory diseases.

A team of researchers led by the biomedical scientist Richard Plemper from Atlanta has now successfully tested an antiviral drug against influenza — but so far only in animal experiments on ferrets and in the laboratory on human airway tissue.

The compound EIDD-2801 blocks an enzyme called RNA polymerase, which plays an important role in the proliferation of viruses. As a result, the molecule triggers mutations in the genome of the virus. If enough mutations occur, the genome becomes ineffective and the virus can no longer reproduce. The physicians published their research results on October 23 in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Read more: Next flu pandemic 'a matter of when, not if,' says WHO

Effective against many virus strains

"The compound is highly effecatious against influenza," said Dr. Plemper, who teaches biomedicine at Georgia State University and developed EIDD-2801 in collaboration with colleagues at Emory University.

"It's orally available, it's [been tested for] a broad spectrum [of] all influenza virus strains... and most importantly, it establishes a high barrier against viral escape from inhibition."

Among other things, the compound was also tested against the swine flu virus, which broke out worldwide in 2009.

Ferrets are very similar to humans in their reaction to influenza viruses. After treatment with the drug, they showed significantly shorter duration of fever than the animals in the control group.

No resistance observed

With previous antiviral drugs, there was always the problem that the viruses succeeded in developing resistance to the drugs through mutation. Dr. Mart Toots, one of the main authors of the study, said that it will be very difficult for the virus to escape the new medicine.

"We have not identified specific resistance mutations yet," Dr. Plemper added. He pointed out that he was confident that "the genetic barrier against viral resistance is high". The compound has a "high clinical potential as a next generation influenza drug," he said.

The physicians plan to test the drug on humans for the first time next year. 

Read more: Do I have the flu or the common cold?

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