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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Local Scientist Closes In on Cure for Flu

A group of Russian scientists say they may have come a step closer to disarming one of mankind's oldest and most common diseases.

Nikolai Bovin of the Institute of Bio-organic Chemistry said his team has successfully tested an experimental drug on mice that impedes the flu virus from attacking healthy body cells.

"In principle the drug works," Bovin said in a recent interview. "We have shown that with in vitro tests, tests with mammal cells and now with mice. Those are the three classical experiments used to determine the effectiveness of flu drugs."

Bovin said he hopes the drug will stop the virus and prevent infection in upcoming clinical trials on humans.

The flu -- which attacks the respiratory tracts in humans and animals -- has left its deadly mark on human history. A rare strain of the virus known as the "Spanish flu" fueled a pandemic in 1918 and 1919 that killed more than 20 million people worldwide.

The death of six people in Hong Kong in 1997 from an unusual strain of the flu led to fears of another epidemic.

Bovin has received a three-year grant worth several hundred thousand dollars from the U.S. Health and Human Service Department's Biotechnology Engagement Program, which was set up to engage scientists in the former Soviet Union in combating biological terrorism.

"By changing the genes of a virus to give it different characteristics, it could not only infect millions or tens of millions of people, but also kill them," he said.

Bovin is searching for more financing to continue research and bring the experimental drug to store counters.

In an experiment carried out at the end of 2001 and reported in the June edition of the international medical journal Antiviral Research, Bovin's anti-flu drug reduced death rates caused by the virus in mice from 90 percent to 30 percent while also reducing the severity of the disease.

Bovin is the first to seek a cure for the flu by acting on components of the virus that recognize and attach to healthy cells, and his work has caught the attention of other leading viral scientists.

"Dr. Bovin has made a significant contribution in the [search for anti-flu drugs], and his work stimulates much discussion," said professor Mark von Itzstein, director of the Center for Biomolecular Science and Drug Discovery at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia.

The experimental drug replicates parts of a sugar molecule called sialic acid that is a part of cell receptors. The flu virus binds to the sialic acid and quickly infects the cell.

For decades, scientists studying the flu have focused their research on the two main protein molecules that reside on the surface of the virus -- hemagglutinin and neuraminidase.

Hemagglutinin, which covers more than 50 percent of the virus surface, is responsible for attaching the virus to the sialic acid. Neuraminidase frees the virus from infected cells, after which they move on to infect other cells.

Finding a cure has been difficult since hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins continually mutate, creating new strains that are often immune to previous vaccinations. Scientists have sought an aspect of the virus that remains constant and is vital to interaction with the target cell.

In the 1980s, researchers in Australia discovered a section of the neuraminidase protein that did not change. They began to develop a drug that would act on that location and hinder the spread of the virus.

The drugs neither prevent nor cure the disease, although they often weaken the severity of the illness and reduce infections from between five to seven days to between three and five days.

Bovin and his team decided to analyze hemagglutinin more closely and its interaction with target cells. Following a theory first formulated by his former professor, Anatoly Khorlin, in 1971, Bovin sought to develop a drug that would hinder interaction between hemagglutinin and sialic acid. After years of research, he made a key finding.

"We realized that though hemagglutinin changes tremendously, sialic acid is a common part of all cell receptors. In other words, all flu viruses connect with one receptor that contains sialic acid," Bovin said.

The hemagglutinin was expected to attach to the drug instead of the sialic acid. Several molecules of hemagglutinin, however, connect to several molecules of sialic acid on the target cell at the same time -- meaning the drug molecule had to be long enough to adhere to several hemagglutinin molecules in order to work.

Bovin created a synthetic polymer -- a very large molecule made up of smaller units joined together to create a chain -- for his experiment on mice. But because polymers can't be produced consistently in large quantities, Bovin said his work has been difficult.

"We have to use single molecules to do the work of polymers. This is a job no one has done before," he said.

Aware that polymers cannot form the basis of the experimental drug, Bovin said it was important to show that hemagglutinin in principle works as an anti-adhesive drug.

Bovin and his team have managed in recent months to create an experimental drug based on the sialic acid, but composed of singular molecules that unite to form polymer-like structures when attached to flu viruses.

Bovin said the principle behind his anti-flu drug could be used to fight HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"The receptors [on cells] that connect to HIV are known and are not complicated," he said. "A synthetic receptor can be created to mimic this receptor and inhibit the spread of HIV in the body."