Influenza virus binding to a respiratory tract cell. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Researchers led by a UC San Diego chemist Monday reported findings that offer hope for new therapies that could better protect patients from the flu, regardless of the strain they contract.

Seth Cohen, a professor in UCSD’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and his team reported that tweaking a small-molecule drug shows promise for future production of new antiviral therapies for influenza patients.

“This is a medicinal intervention that will slow down the virus if not completely stop it,” Cohen said. “The drug could potentially eliminate the virus on its own or just sufficiently slow its reproduction so that the body can ultimately clear it. It’s like taking an antibiotic for a viral infection.”

Cohen and his team, who presented their work at the 255th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, have spent two years developing a better drug that “would serve as a wrench in the virus’ replication works,” according to UCSD, which reported that the team received funding from the National Institutes of Health.

“We modified our small-molecule drug so that it would bind to both manganese ions simultaneously,” Cohen explained, adding that he tested the molecule on a protein called RNA polymerase.

“The modification dramatically improved the potency of the compound over previous drugs we created,” he said. “The team is hopeful that in the coming months, it will be just as effective when they challenge the whole influenza virus with the molecule.”

The team’s potential breakthrough comes in the midst of what “has been a bad flu season with a highly infectious, aggressive strain, and the inoculation does not appear to be working well,” Cohen noted.  “It makes the population, particularly the young and the elderly, vulnerable to serious illness or even death from the simple flu.”

Since the start of the 2017-18 flu season last October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported nearly 66,000 positive tests for the virus in the United States, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

In San Diego County, the total of influenza-related deaths had reached 302 as of the first week of March, out of nearly 19,000 confirmed cases. At the same time last year, 68 deaths were reported.

–City News Service

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