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The Latest Flu Drug Is The Product Of A 40-Year-Old Discovery

NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Colorized transmission electron micrograph showing H1N1 influenza virus particles.

From Texas Standard:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone over the age of six months gets the flu vaccine before the end of October, but many won't for various reasons. While the following information should not be interpreted as one more reason not to get vaccinated, it certainly is worth considering that there may be a viable flu-shot alternative this year. 

The Food and Drug Administration just approved a new treatment for the flu called Xofluza, and it's meant for those over 12 years of age who have had flu symptoms for less than 48 hours. The drug has already been approved for use in Japan, and trials have shown it's very effective. But before it got to this point, it started in the lab of a professor who now works at University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Bob Krug is a professor emeritus of molecular biosciences in the College of Natural Sciences and says his work with what became Xofluza began in the 1970s. He was working at the Sloan Kettering Institute where he focused on how the influenza virus initiates infection. He says he discovered that influenza uses a unique pathway called "cap snatching" to spread.

“That mechanism is crucial to start the infection,” Krug says. “What I discovered is the mechanism. It was very surprising. It’s quite unique.”

This mechanism is so unique that when Krug’s findings became public, they were not taken seriously at first. Krug says it took a long time to get published because of this doubt. He says the process of this mechanism is what the new drug is based on.

“If you inhibit the first step [of the mechanism], you just wipe out the virus,” Krug says. “But to get to the point where there was an actual drug took 40 years.”

There were two things Krug says caused this delay between his research and the drug being made. The first was the influenza drug not being of great commercial benefit to pharmaceutical companies; the infection doesn't last long and does not require regular courses of drugs for treatment. Krug says this changed when the avian flu came about, which prompted mass production and stockpiling. The second was that scientists needed to make a three-dimensional structure of one of the virus' enzymes so that drugs could be designed target that enzyme and disable the virus.

Looking back, Krug says he's happy to see the fruits of his work at the end of his career.

“It’s a good way to retire,” Krug says. “I’ve been in this work for almost 50 years. It’s very gratifying.”

Written by Brooke Sjoberg.

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