As recent scares with the avian and swine flu have so vividly reminded us, influenza can involve a lot more than just feeling lousy and throwing up. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, 250,000 to 500,000 people die annually from the virus. We should be glad to hear, therefore, that researchers believe they are closing in on a cure for the flu. Scientists at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have discovered a component of the virus that may hold the secret to keeping it from being able to self-replicate.
The team worked with the influenza A virus, which is encoded with eight single-stranded segments of RNA. Those segments are responsible for making both protein (transcription) and new segments (replication). Since they can’t do both at once, they start with transcription, then progress to replication.
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What the researchers have discovered is the existence of a small-viral RNA (svRNA), produced by the virus, that is vital to the switch from one state to the other. If they can find a way of thwarting this svRNA, then the RNA segments won’t be able to proceed to replication, and the virus will be unable to spread. Because influenzas B, C and H1N1 use similar replication systems, the strategy should work for halting their spread, too.
As an added extra, if the virus is able to be kept at the transcription phase, the proteins it’s creating will help strengthen the antibody response.
"Questions remain about exactly how the svRNAs function," said Mount Sinai’s Dr. Benjamin tenOever. "We're also hoping to engineer a means of delivering RNA-based antagonists into the body's system as a means of inhibiting svRNA function. We're still a few years off from solving the entire puzzle. However, by finding this one piece, a universal treatment for all strains of influenza is within reach of becoming a reality."