Researchers have discovered a new molecule that could be key in protecting us against influenza. The team has developed a substance that mimics the behavior of antibodies and inhibits the virus from attaching itself to cells. The discovery is reported in the journal Science.
The molecules are based on the attack strategy of broadly neutralizing antibodies (bnAbs) against influenza. These bnAbs attack the hemagglutinin (HA), a protein found on the surface of the virus that influenza uses to bind itself to cells. In the study, the scientists report that their small compound can do the same.
This molecule, known as JNJ4796, neutralized influenza A group 1 virus in the lab as well in a three-dimensional culture of human lung cells. It also showed that oral administrations of this compound were able to protect mice from both lethal and sublethal influenza.
"We identified an orally active small molecule against influenza A hemagglutinin (HA) that mimics the binding and functionality of the broadly neutralizing antibody CR6261," lead author Dr Maria van Dongen, director at the Janssen Prevention Center, told IFLScience. "This, either as stand-alone therapy or in drug combinations, is believed to be of particular importance in the context of treatment resistance."
Mice in the study were exposed to 25 times the lethal dose of the H1N1 virus. By taking two doses daily of the compound from one day before infection until seven days after, it resulted in a 100 percent survival rate by the 21st day. The control with a less powerful compound showed that less than 50 percent of mice survived at the three-week mark.
JNJ4796 appears to serve a similar function as bnAbs, but it has an advantage compared to them. Antibodies don’t fare too well when it comes to oral delivery, so finding a molecule that behaves similarly is extremely positive. The team is already looking at the next steps.
"The next stage would be to look for other small molecules than could bind to other types of influenza virus such as influenza B and influenza A group 2 viruses." van Dongen added.
Influenza comes in many forms, from mild to severe to deadly. This is why it is important to get vaccinated against it. According to the World Health Organization, seasonal epidemics of the flu result in 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness and 290,000 to 650,000 of associated respiratory deaths.