Magazine article Science News

Antiviral Agents Counter Deadly 1918 Influenza. (New Drugs Beat Old Flu)

Magazine article Science News

Antiviral Agents Counter Deadly 1918 Influenza. (New Drugs Beat Old Flu)

Article excerpt

A greater killer than the First World War, the influenza virus that swept the globe from 1918 to 1919 took the lives of 20 million to 40 million people. After partially recreating that deadly virus, a research team has now shown that available flu drugs could probably prevent a new pandemic of the 1918 influenza strain or a similar flu.

In recent years, scientists studying tissue preserved since 1918 have pieced together several genes from this deadly influenza strain, also commonly known as the Spanish flu (SN: 3/22/97 p. 172). Virologists are investigating why that virus was so lethal compared with typical influenza strains, but its genes and the proteins they encode haven't offered any obvious answer.

Christopher F. Basler of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and his colleagues have now incorporated several genes from the 1918 flu into an influenza strain that has adapted to mice and typically kills the rodents. The introduced viral genes encode a surface protein called hemagglutinin (HA), an enzyme known as neuraminidase (NA), and two proteins dubbed M1 and M2.

The researchers expected that those genes would reduce the virulence of the mouse-adapted virus. Flu viruses isolated from people rarely prove lethal to rodents, and genes from human-adapted strains typically weaken rodent-influenza viruses.

Not so for the HA and NA genes of the 1918 flu. The engineered virus containing both of these genes readily killed mice, the scientists report in an upcoming issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The HA and NA genes, when each was present alone, lowered virulence. This suggests that the specific combination of HA and NA may underlie the 1918 flu disaster. "In any influenza [strain], the HA and NA have to be compatible for the virus to grow well," says Basler. …

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