Scottish developed anti-flu spray ‘will save lives’

Flu cells. Current anti-virals cut the life of symptoms by half a day. Picture: Contributed
Flu cells. Current anti-virals cut the life of symptoms by half a day. Picture: Contributed
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A TREATMENT which could prove a breakthrough in protection against pandemic flu has been developed by Scottish scientists.

A preventative compound, which could be administered via a nasal spray, has the potential to guard against current and future strains of the virus, its creators said.

It sticks to sugar molecules in the respiratory tract, shielding them from the flu virus and other airborne pathogens.

The treatment, created by a team at St Andrews University, is not a vaccine, but could be used as a “frontline defence” during a pandemic.

News of the development comes a week after researchers said governments which stockpile antiviral drugs are wasting billions. In a review of trial data on Roche’s Tamiflu, and GlaxoSmithKline’s flu drug Relenza, scientists from research network the Cochrane Review said that while the medicines can shorten the life of flu symptoms by half a day, there is no evidence to back claims they cut hospital admissions or lessen complications.

The St Andrews research was led by Professor Garry Taylor and Dr Helen Connaris, who used genetically engineered proteins to develop the treatment.

“We have developed an alternative host-targeted approach to prevent influenza by synthesising novel proteins, or biologics, that are designed to mask specific sugar molecules that line the respiratory tract,” they said in a statement.

“The influenza virus, and indeed other respiratory pathogens, need to bind to these sugars to gain entry to our cells to start the infection process.”

The treatment was tested on mice and the studies showed a single nasal dose completely protected the mice even when given seven days before a lethal dose of the pandemic 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) virus. As well as surviving, the mice developed antibodies against the virus, suggesting they were “vaccinated” against future exposure.

Prof Taylor added: “The recent Cochrane study revealing the limited effectiveness of Tamiflu, which has been stockpiled by several governments at vast expense, shows new approaches are required.

“We believe our approach has the potential to be used as a preventative against any current and new virus that emerges. Given that several other respiratory pathogens use the same entry route, our approach has a potentially broader application.”

Influenza remains a constant worldwide threat, with epidemics claiming up to 500,000 lives each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

The emergence of new strains from birds in recent years has revealed the ability of the virus to cross species barriers and thus pose pandemic health threats.

While vaccines are the cornerstone of prevention, they are not always effective and take time to develop in the quantities needed to treat populations.