Did scientists just invent a long-term cure for the flu?

  • Researchers have developed what they say is a synthetic molecule capable of destroying the flu virus, potentially leading to an effective treatment.
  • Flu vaccines attempt to prevent the spread of the virus but have to be updated yearly and are sometimes not very effective.
  • This new molecule could lead to a drug that could cure people of the flu after they have been diagnosed, shortening recovery time.

It might have been overshadowed this year thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, but the seasonal flu is still a huge issue and a serious health danger for millions of people every year. The constantly evolving flu virus claims tens of thousands of lives annually in the US alone, and the trend is the same all over the world.

At the present moment, the best defense against the flu is the annual flu vaccine. Vaccines can be incredibly helpful, but not everyone has the opportunity to get one and many people simply choose not to. On top of that, the effectiveness of the vaccines can vary greatly from year to year, leading some years to be particularly deadly for those who are at risk of severe health outcomes. Thanks to a new laboratory breakthrough, that could all change.

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The researcher team, which was made up of scientists from both the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) Supramolecular Nano-materials and Interfaces Laboratory as well as the University of Geneva’s Department of Microbiology and Molecular Medicine, invented the new molecule that kills the virus that causes influenza. The work, which was published in the journal Advanced Science, didn’t produce an actual drug, but lays the groundwork for drugs that may utilize it in the future.

“With the flu virus, the risk of a pandemic is high,” says Francesco Stellacci, co-author of the research, said in a statement. “Scientists have to update the vaccine every year because the strain mutates, and sometimes the vaccine turns out to be less effective. So it would be good to also have antivirals that could limit the effects of large-scale infection.”

Indeed, it’s often a roll of the dice when it comes to whether the flu vaccine that researchers come up with will actually prevent infection or not, and sometimes mutations can lead to a new strain of the virus spreading rapidly, making the previous vaccines virtually pointless.

“By the time patients seek medical treatment, it’s often too late for Tamiflu,” Stellacci says. “In addition, for antivirals to really work, they have to be virucidal—that is, they have to irreversibly inhibit viral infectivity. But today that’s not the case.”

Going forward, this virucidal molecule could become an important part of a treatment approach for curing the seasonal flu and bringing symptoms under control much more rapidly. Ultimately, it could eventually save many, many lives.

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