Spring has officially sprung, and with it the clutches of another New England winter finally begin to relax, including the ever-formidable flu season. While the flu can be inconvenient and unpleasant for the average person, it can be deadly to many others, especially those with compromised immune systems or poor access to healthcare. According to the CDC, between 291,000 and 646,000 people around the world die from influenza-related respiratory illnesses every year. The highest mortality rates are seen among older populations, who often have weaker immune systems, and people in the poorest areas of the world. Since the flu poses such a significant worldwide disease burden, many attempts are made each year to develop a flu vaccine that will be effective against all strains of the virus. However, these vaccines are not effective for long periods of time due to the flu virus’ ability to rapidly evolve and change the surface proteins that vaccines target.
A team of scientists from the U.S., the Netherlands and Belgium have devised a new method to combat the flu virus which holds significant promise for new treatments and creates a dialogue for taking vaccine development in a new, more effective direction. In a paper published in the journal “Science,” the researchers described a small molecule that was created to mimic a mechanism used by antibodies to combat the flu.
Neutralizing antibodies have been recently discovered that can target the “stems” of surface proteins on the flu virus, rather than the heads, which are much more variable and less universal across different strains. The antibodies are able to keep the virus from fusing with cells, leaving them unable to infect host tissues and cause disease. In addition, these antibodies appear to work the same way across flu strains, allowing them to curb the majority of infections.
While it may seem simple to treat flu patients by injecting them with large quantities of these antibodies, this concept is not as simple in actuality. Antibodies are fragile, large, complicated molecules that are difficult (and expensive) to synthesize and administer in massive amounts. Synthesizing smaller molecules that behave like these antibodies without their cumbersome size/fragility shows great promise in reducing complications and increasing the effectiveness of treatments.
The experiments detailed in “Science” demonstrated the effectiveness of a particular small molecule designed from thousands of potential candidates and tailored to perfectly mimic virus-fighting antibodies. When given orally to mice before exposing them to the flu, the small molecule provided 100 percent protection against different strains of the flu. It also was shown to neutralize infection in human lung-tissue cells grown in a lab.
While these results should generate great excitement in the scientific community and beyond, they must also be regarded with an element of caution. This treatment has yet to be attempted on human subjects, and the molecule is far from being approved for clinical trials. In addition, while it showed promise as a treatment if given prophylactically, a drug cannot be feasibly administered pre-infection unless a large pandemic is occurring that would justify such measures.
Even though the study poses such unanswered questions, it is crucial that we seek answers and travel down these new paths when conducting, supporting and educating others about research. The experiments not only demonstrate our vast lack of ability to adequately treat the flu and other diseases, but also indicate our power to explore fields of research such as drug development through new lenses that can greatly improve lives. Current antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu, which are administered after infection, are not long-term solutions due to several flu strains quickly developing resistance. It is important that citizens advocate for research investigating drug and vaccine development so such studies are properly funded and receive the publicity they need to continue paving new roads toward a brighter future around the world.
Kate Lee is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at Katherine.firstname.lastname@example.org.