A novel strain of influenza A, H6N1, has been reported in a 20-year old woman in Taiwan. Health officials fear the virus, which is very similar in structure to the H7N9 avian flu virus which killed 45 and infected 139 people in China last year, may infect more people.
Michael Caffrey, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an expert on avian influenza viruses. In a recently published paper in PLOS One, he reported that a compound commonly used as a food preservative was able to prevent H7N9 from entering cells. The virus is hosted by domestic chickens, so preventing it from spreading among these birds, possibly through adding the preservative to their feed, could be a simple but effective way of keeping the viral load down in the host and preventing the virus from spilling over into humans.
Lijun Rong, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Illinois at Chicago also focuses on preventing emerging viruses from infecting cells. Rong uses a high-throughput screening protocol to test hundreds of potential drugs and agents for their virus-blocking potential. The viruses he studies include Marburg, Ebola, SARS, avian influenza and HIV- some of the most dangerous viruses known to humankind. By removing proteins on the virus surface involved in recognizing, binding to and entering host cells, and affixing them to much less dangerous viruses, Rong can safely test agents that interfere cell infection. "One-at-a-time drug testing is no longer a viable method for finding drugs against these emerging viruses," Rong says. "Because they can mutate so rapidly, we need a fast way to test lots of potential drugs at once to keep up. It is an arms race."
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