Synthetic molecules mimic human cells to lure and kill the flu virus

The influenza virus as proven to be a very tricky foe to fight. Now, researchers at EPFL in Switzerland have developed synthetic molecules that can kill the flu virus by mimicking human cells, and putting the squeeze on the virus when it attaches itself to the decoy.

Current antiviral drugs, such as oseltamivir (or Tamiflu), work by attacking the virus once it’s inside a host cell, and cutting off its ability to replicate and spread. The problem is, it has a very short window to work with – wait more than about 36 hours after infection, and its efficacy plummets. Plus viruses could develop resistance to it through widespread use.

For the new study, the EPFL team set out to develop an alternative that ideally would be effective against a range of seasonal influenza strains and didn’t cause severe side effects in patients. The researchers modified a sugar molecule so that it mimics a cell membrane, which entices a flu virus to attach to it.

“For antivirals to really work, they have to be virucidal – that is, they have to irreversibly inhibit viral infectivity,” says Francsco Stellacci, lead author of the study. “Once the virus is attached, our molecule exerts pressure locally and destroys it. And this mechanism is irreversible.”

The team tested their molecules against several human and avian influenza strains, in mouse studies and in lab cell cultures. Throughout the first 24 hours of infection, the molecules showed constant efficacy, which the team says could mean that it works for longer than 36 hours in humans. In another test, the molecules were given 24 hours after infection, leading to a 90 percent survival rate for those mice. By comparison, none of the animals survived on a placebo or oseltamivir.

The researchers say that this method could lead to new antiviral drugs that are effective against a wide range of different flu viruses. That would help solve one of the main challenges of treating the disease: how fast it mutates every year, requiring updated vaccines that often have varying success rates.

Of course at this stage, the treatment has only been tested in mice and lab cell cultures, so there’s no guarantee that the results will carry across to human patients. In the meantime, other new antiviral drugs are progressing swiftly, such as baloxavir marboxil, which was granted FDA approval in 2018.

The study was published in the journal Advanced Science.

Source: EPFL

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