Developing a flu drug is no mean feat—not only does the virus mutate, but the drug has to be innocuous to the human body. “The chances of survival with influenza are high, so any drug has to have little or no side effects. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth taking,” notes Stellacci.
The flu virus attaches to a cell membrane in order to infect a human body; it then detaches and goes on to infect other cells. Existing antiviral drugs work by attacking the virus inside a host cell and temporarily blocking viral replication. The EPFL scientists took a new approach with their antiviral compound in order to make it both effective against influenza and non-toxic. They developed a modified sugar molecule that mimics a cell membrane, tricking the flu virus into attaching to it. “Once the virus is attached, our molecule exerts pressure locally and destroys it. And this mechanism is irreversible,” says Stellacci.
Because this process occurs outside the body’s cells, this synthetic compound demonstrates constant efficacy during the first 24 hours after infection, based on tests conducted on mice. This suggests that in humans, the compound’s efficacy could last beyond 36 hours.