New drug forces flu virus into ‘error catastrophe,’ overwhelming it with mutations
Scientists often warn about the dangers of pandemic pathogens spreading quickly around the globe. But one virus already sweeps across the world every year, causing tens of millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths: influenza. Now, a new drug that has shown promise in ferrets may help drive down that toll, researchers report today. The drug appears to be more effective than the most commonly used treatment, oseltamivir, and there are hints that it won’t prompt easy resistance in the virus.
Scientists have long been frustrated by the constant shapeshifting of the flu virus, which necessitates an annual reformulation of flu vaccines to reflect commonly circulating strains. When that match is bad, vaccine protection can be low, especially for elderly people who are most at risk. Meanwhile, new influenza drugs have been slow to develop, and those that exist are often inadequate. Oseltamivir, for instance, provides a moderate benefit at best, and only when given early in the infection; whether it prevents hospitalizations and deaths is controversial.
To come up with an alternative, scientists at Georgia State University and Emory University, both in Atlanta, investigated a compound named N-hydroxycytidine (NHC), which has been known for years to inhibit a broad range of RNA viruses like the flu. Previously, the researchers had shown that NHC is active against influenza; but in tests on macaques, they found the drug is not taken up well by the body, “a potential deal breaker” for human use, says Georgia State molecular virologist Richard Plemper, one of the researchers leading the new work.