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Scientists Discover Influenza's Achilles Heel: Antioxidants

Date: 16.11.2009 

As the nation copes with a shortage of vaccines for H1N1 influenza, a team of Alabama researchers have raised hopes that they have found an Achilles' heel for all strains of the flu: antioxidants. In an article appearing in the November 2009 print issue of the FASEB Journal (The Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology), they show that antioxidants might hold the key in preventing the flu virus from wreaking havoc on our lungs.

A/H1N1 swine flu

In the spring of 2009, a new strain of Type A flu had been identified in Mexico. The A/H1N1 virus appeared to be deadly, and experts feared a flu pandemic imminent.

Viruses are microorganisms that cannot produce on their own. In order to survive, a virus must attach itself to the cell of a healthy organism and hijack the cell's reproductive capabilities. The H1N1 virus appeared to still be susceptible to the antiviral drugs Tamiflu and Relenza, and a vaccine is already available. But since viruses are known to mutate and develop resistance, many people began looking for a alternative.

"The recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza and the rapid spread of this strain across the world highlights the need to better understand how this virus damages the lungs and to find new treatments," said Sadis Matalon, co-author of the study. "Additionally, our research shows that antioxidants may prove beneficial in the treatment of flu."

Antioxidants effects on influenza virus

Matalon and colleagues showed that the flu virus damages our lungs through its "M2 protein," which attacks the cells that line the inner surfaces of our lungs (epithelial cells). Specifically, the M2 protein disrupts lung epithelial cells' ability to remove liquid from inside of our lungs, setting the stage for pneumonia and other lung problems. The researchers made this discovery by conducting three sets of experiments using the M2 protein and the lung protein they damage.
First, frog eggs were injected with the lung protein alone to measure its function. Second, researchers injected frog eggs with both the M2 protein and the lung protein and found that the function of the lung protein was significantly decreased. Using molecular biology techniques, scientists isolated the segment of the M2 protein responsible for the damage to the lung protein. Then they demonstrated that without this segment, the protein was unable to cause damage. Third, the full M2 protein (with the "offending" segment intact) and the lung protein were then re-injected into the frog eggs along with drugs known to remove oxidants. This too prevented the M2 protein from causing damage to the lung protein. These experiments were repeated using cells from human lungs with exactly the same results.

"Although vaccines will remain the first line of intervention against the flu for a long time to come, this study opens the door for entirely new treatments geared toward stopping the virus after you're sick," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of the FASEB Journal, "and as Thanksgiving approaches, this discovery is another reason to drink red wine to your health."
Picture: This digitally-colorized negative-stained transmission electron micograph (TEM) depicted a number of influenza A virions.

Author: Dagmar Smětalová






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