A team of scientists at the University of St Andrews have been awarded £1.6million towards the development of new drugs for the prevention and treatment of influenza.
Influenza is a contagious acute viral infection which represents a particular risk for the young and the elderly. Symptoms frequently include headache, fever, cough, sore throat, and aching muscles. In serious cases it can also lead to bronchitis or pneumonia, which can be fatal.
The funding, which was provided by the Medical Research Council, will be used to fund two specific areas of research.
Professor Rick Randall and Dr Rupert Russell, part of the team that was awarded the funding, will firstly investigate how the virus is able to multiply and invade the immune system by interfering with normal cellular mechanisms.
“The MRC funding will allow us to address important questions concerning the function and structure of an essential viral virulence factor,” Dr Russell said.
Secondly, Professor Garry Taylor and Dr Helen Connaris, also part of the team, will continue their work developing proteins designed to mask the sugar molecules in the respiratory tract, which the influenza virus must bind to in order to become active in the body.
This approach targets the host rather than the virus, and means that the virus is unable to attach to its receptor in the initial stages of infection.
Currently, the flu is treated through annual vaccinations and one of two licensed antivirals: oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and zanamivir (Relenza®). However, constant mutation of the virus means that new, more resistant strains emerge every year.
Often, this happens when a new version of the flu is spread to humans from other animal species, or when an existing human strain acquires new genes from a virus that usually infects birds or pigs. This is what led to the H1N1 ‘swine flu’ outbreak in 2009.
As each new strain develops, existing drugs become less effective, which means that researchers must work hard to stay one step ahead. As such, the World Health Organisation has said that the virus remains the single greatest threat to global health.
“Our approach should overcome resistance associated with drugs that target the virus,” said Taylor. “The MRC funding will allow us to explore the effectiveness of this approach and to translate our basic research into a new drug that will hopefully enter the clinic.”
The work will be carried out at the new annex of the Biomedical Sciences Research Complex, which is currently under construction.