Researchers find potential target for antivirus efforts to combat influenza

Nicole Bueno

A team of microbiology researchers have discovered a protein that could lead to new breakthroughs in combating influenza.

Postdoctoral fellow Guifang Chen, along with three other UT researchers, have discovered a protein produced naturally by human body cells, named DDX21, that inhibits the growth and spread of the influenza A virus through host cells.

“We found a protein, DDX21, from human cells that can block the replication of the influenza A virus,” Chen said. “In turn, a protein (NS1) from the influenza virus can block DDX21’s function and promote the replication of virus.”

According to Chen, identifying NS1 as an inhibitor of the body’s natural defenses is crucial for finding a way to stop the influenza virus from spreading.

“The findings help us know what happens when the virus infects the cells and makes NS1 viral protein as a potential target for antiviral drugs against the influenza A virus,” Chen said. “DDX21 cannot help improve vaccines, and the protein itself cannot help the treatments either, but the finding of DDX21’s mechanism on influenza A virus will help us find the target for combat.”

The influenza A virus, as described by the Texas Department of State Health Services, is classified into subtypes, and only certain strains of the influenza A virus can affect humans. The influenza virus, as with all viruses, attacks the body’s host cells, using them for replication.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are an estimated 23,607 influenza-associated deaths and over 200,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations every year in the United States.

Sherry Bell, senior program coordinator for University Health Services, said the University sees both confirmed cases of influenza and influenza-like syndromes as the flu because they have similar symptoms.

“In reality, the number of cases of influenza is probably between 81 and 217,” Bell said. “The 217 is the combination of 136 diagnoses of influenza-like syndrome and the 81 diagnoses of influenza.”

The research team’s findings are particularly relevant, considering the strength of the recent H1N1 strain, commonly known as swine flu, which is a subtype of the influenza A virus. Because vaccines are not guaranteed to be effective, reliance on antiviral drugs has become increasingly common.

Biology and premed senior Evelyn Chou said targeting the correct protein could provide a more reliable way to fight influenza.

“I think it’s great that they’re trying to stray from vaccines because flu strains evolve,” Chou said. “It would be a more permanent fix to the problem.”