Scientists are constantly searching for new methods of combating harmful viruses, but it's not always necessary to create fresh drugs to deal with new threats. A team of researchers from the Universities of Leeds, Glasgow and Nottingham in the UK has found that a group of drugs currently used to treat conditions such as depression might also prove an effective means of combating emerging viruses.

Developing new drugs isn't an easy process, requiring a huge amount of research and testing. Research projects consume a lot of time a money, and don't always give positive results. Turning to existing drugs, which have already been proved safe for human use, cuts out a large chunk of the development process, potentially making it cheaper, faster and easier to find new treatments.

With that approach in mind, the University of Leeds researchers focused on the Bunyavirus family, which includes life-threatening pathogens such as Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic virus and Hantaviruses. These are becoming increasingly prevalent, and have high mortality rates, and the virus family presents the risk of becoming a global problem.

Testing showed that existing drugs, specifically the anti-psychotic haloperidol, the anti-depressant fluoxetine and the local anesthetic bupivacine, are effective at inhibiting ion channels that regulate potassium levels, blocking the ability of bunyaviruses to infect cells. No notable effects were observed when the researchers tested the drugs against another virus family. It's believed that different viruses target different ion channels to create a favorable growth environment, and that bunyaviruses specifically target potassium ion channels.

Further testing will be necessary to confirm the results, but the data is very promising, and highlights the possible benefits of assessing existing drugs to tackle new threats.

"If existing drugs are confirmed to be effective against known members of a particular virus family, this opens up the possibility of using these 'off-the-shelf' treatments in a rapid response against dangerous new related virus strains that emerge," said the University of Glasgow's Dr Alain Kohl.

The findings of the new study were published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.