Hong Kong scientists claim anti-viral breakthrough

Hong Kong scientists claim they have made a potential breakthrough discovery in the fight against infectious diseases — a chemical that could slow the spread of deadly viral illnesses.

A team from the University of Hong Kong described the newly discovered chemical as “highly potent in interrupting the life cycle of diverse viruses” in a study published in January 2019 in the journal Nature Communications.

The chemical could one day be used as a broad-spectrum anti-viral for a host of infectious diseases — and even for viruses that have yet to emerge — if it passes clinical trials, the scientists said in January 2019.

The spread in recent decades of sometimes deadly bird flu strains, such as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), have underscored the need for new drugs that can work more quickly than vaccines.

Broad-spectrum anti-virals are seen as the holy grail because they can be used against multiple pathogens. In contrast, vaccines usually only protect against one strain, and by the time they are produced the virus may have mutated.

The Hong Kong team tested its chemical AM580 on mice in a two-year study and found it stopped the replication of a host of flu strains, including H1N1, H5N1 and H7N9, as well as the viruses that cause 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 anti-viral drug, which means it can kill a number of viruses,” said microbiologist Dr. Yuen Kwok-yung, who led the team. “This is quite important in the early control of an epidemic.”

The study is part of a growing body of research by virologists to find drugs that avoid targeting a virus directly — something which could lead to resistance. Instead they look for compounds that interrupt the way viruses use crucial fatty acids, known as lipids, within a host’s cells to replicate.

“This study is science in progress — an early step in an exciting new direction,” said Benjamin Neuman, an expert on viruses at Texas A&M University-Texarkana who has published his own studies on starving viruses of lipids.

“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,” he said.  Agence France-Presse

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