Hope against superbugs after scientists discover a chemical that slows the spread of deadly SARS, Zika and bird flu
- Chemical – AM580 – disrupts the flow of lipids from the cell the virus has infected
- Derivative is safe when treating cancer but one expert has concerns
- Hope it will be the go-to treatment for viruses – even those not yet evolved
Scientists claim they have made a breakthrough discovery in the fight against infectious diseases.
Experts from the University of Hong Kong have discovered a ‘highly-potent’ chemical that could slow the spread of a host of life-threatening viruses, including SARS, Zika and bird flu.
The chemical – named AM580 – hijacks the lipids a virus needs from the cell it has infected in order to survive.
The researchers hope it will day be the go-to treatment for viruses – even those that have not evolved yet.
Scientists have made a breakthrough discovery in the fight against infectious diseases (stock)
Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the scientists – led by microbiologist Dr Yuen Kwok-yung – claim the chemical is ‘highly potent in interrupting the life cycle of diverse viruses’.
The spread in recent decades of deadly bird flu strains, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) have highlighted the need for new drugs that can work more quickly than vaccines.
Broad-spectrum antivirals are seen as the holy grail because they can be used against multiple pathogens.
Whereas vaccines usually only protect against one strain. And by the time the jab is produced, the virus may have mutated, leaving the vaccine ineffective.
The researchers tested AM580 on mice as part of a two-year study.
They found AM580 stopped the replication of numerous flu strains – including H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9 – as well as the viruses behind SARS and MERS.
It also stopped the replication of the mosquito-borne Zika virus and Enterovirus 71, which causes hand, foot and mouth disease.
‘This is what we call a broad-spectrum antiviral drug, which means it can kill a number of viruses,’ Dr Kwok-yung told AFP. ‘This is quite important in the early control of an epidemic.’
This study is part of a growing body of research to find drugs that avoid targeting a virus directly, which could lead to resistance.
Instead they look for compounds that interrupt the way viruses use crucial fatty acids within a host’s cells to replicate.
‘This study is science in progress – an early step in an exciting new direction,’ said Dr Benjamin Neuman, an expert on viruses at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.
‘Viruses are totally dependent on supplies stolen from their hosts, and a number of recent studies have shown that treatments that interrupt the steady flow of lipids in an infected cell are highly effective at blocking a wide range of viruses.’
The next step is to test AM580 on a wider variety of animals, including pigs and primates, before pushing to clinical trials – which could take up to eight years, according to Dr Kwok-yung.
In the meantime, the researchers have applied for a patent in the US.
A derivative of AM580 is already being used in Japan to treat cancer, raising hopes it will show low toxicity for humans.
But Dr Neuman warns there are drawbacks. Like chemotherapy used to fight cancer, antivirals such as AM580 damage a person’s cells to starve a virus.
‘Unless the treatment is targeted very carefully, the potential for side effects would be very worrying,’ he said.
The densely-populated city of Hong Kong has first-hand experience of deadly viral outbreaks.
In 2003, nearly 300 people died from SARS and the city’s densely packed apartment blocks are considered hugely vulnerable to future outbreaks.