What Is the Future of Flu Treatment? A HealthCentral Explainer

ATsai Editor
  • Prevention is the best tool we have against colds and the flu, either through personal hygiene or the flu vaccine. But neither of those options is sure to stop you from getting a bug. Antivirals exist, but they are generally only prescribed for individuals at high-risk for complications from a virus, such as the elderly.

    So what are researchers working on for prevention and treatment of the common cold and flu in the general population?


    How can the flu vaccine be improved?

    Each year, scientists have to predict which flu strains will be prevalent during the upcoming flu season because the vaccine has to be developed in advance. This can mean that some active strains in a given season will not be covered by the vaccine, which means there is potential for more people to become sick.

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    To improve the seasonal vaccine, researchers from Germany and the United Kingdom have improved the prediction methods used to determine which strains of the flu virus should be used each year.


    Their research, published in the October issue of the journal GENETICS, analyzed the DNA sequences of thousands of flu strains dating back to 1968. They were able to pinpoint which strains were more likely to spread into the entire population and which were not. They also found that many more mutations were capable of replicating and surviving than previously thought.


    The research may be able to help vaccine developers predict and understand virus evolution more completely, which could lead to better predictions for which flu vaccines need to be developed each season.


    Another way scientists are looking to prevent the flu is through a universal vaccine, and new research from The Scripps Research Institute has brought us one step closer. Scientists have determined how a human antibody can neutralize flu viruses in a unique and broad way. This antibody recognizes the structure of a flu virus, which is crucial to how it attaches to a host cell. The antibody is able to hit this precise spot on the virus and this can  neutralize a broad range of dangerous flu viruses. Previously it was thought that the structure was too small for the antibody to grab.


    The antibody, called C05, was able to bind to proteins from a variety of influenza A strains, which is the most dangerous family of flu viruses. Not only did the study find that C05 prevented infection in mice, but it eliminated the flu virus up to three days after infection had begun. This suggests that a universal flu vaccine could be developed that elicited these antibodies in people.


                [SLIDESHOW: 5 Ways for Seniors to Prevent the Flu]


    Is there potential for a preventive spray?

    Another team of researchers is looking into a nasal spray that could protect against the flu. Specifically, scientists are looking to jumpstart the normal immune response that occurs when a virus enters the nose. A synthetic form of a natural substance found in the cell walls of bacteria (Pam2Cys) has shown promise in activating this response. In laboratory tests, using Pam2Cys as a nasal spray encourages the normal immune response, but does not replace it. Researchers suggest that it could be useful against pandemics and new viral strains.


    Another spray that is currently on shelves, Halo Oral Antiseptic, is a new oral antiseptic spray that can kill 99.9 percent of airborne germs. Two studies found the new spray to be effective at killing infectious germs.


    The first study, which led to the development of the product, looked at glycerine and xanthan gum as a barrier, combined with cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC) as a broad-spectrum agent to fight respiratory illness. They then tested the combination by exposing it to the 2009 strain of H1N1. They found that the barrier ingredients prevented the germs from entering the person’s system, and the CPC killed the germs once they were trapped there.

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    The second study looked at the final Halo product, and found that when a person used three sprays, it destroyed airborne germs breathed into the body for up to six hours, even when eating and drinking. The spray could be another line of defense against cold and flu.


                   [SLIDESHOW: 5 Things That Boost Your Flu Risk]


    Are other drugs a possibility?

    Current antiviral medications target viral proteins. The problem with targeting the virus is that it can quickly mutate and become resistant to the medications. So scientists are looking into drugs that work on host functions. One study developed a cell screening method to identify potential anti-flu drugs, and found three that are currently approved or being studied as anticancer agents. The amount needed to curb the flu would be much lower than those needed to create cancer cell death, which could provide a new mechanism for antiviral drugs.


    In a similar vein, scientists are also looking into drugs that target a certain enzyme produced by the flu virus. When the flu virus replicates, it uses this enzyme to produce copies of the viral genome and assembles messenger molecules coded for viral proteins. These molecules are required to take over the host cell’s function and produce more of the virus. Researchers have found a way to inhibit this enzyme, which essentially “caps” the virus’ ability to duplicate.


    Bottom line: While all these treatments are in various stages of development, the future of flu treatments is bright and ever-changing, much like the flu virus itself. For now, keep up good hygiene and get your flu shot early in the season to stay as protected as possible.



    n.p. (2012, October 3). "Predicting The Spread Of Flu May Be Improved By Evolutionary Analysis." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/250970.php


    n.p. (2012, September 18). "A Step Closer To Universal Flu Vaccine, New Therapies." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/250328.php


     n.p. (2012, September 14). "An Advance Toward A Flu-Fighting Nasal Spray." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/250214.php


    n.p. (2012, September 11). "Research Finds Novel Airborne Germ-Killing Oral Spray Effective In Fighting Colds And Flu." Medical News Today. Retrieved from  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/250011.php


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    n.p. (2012, September 9). "Harnessing Anticancer Drugs For The Future Fight Against Influenza." Medical News Today. Retrieved from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/249937.php


    n.p. (2012, August 7). "First-Strike Influenza Drug Target Identified." Medical News Today. Retrieved from  http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/248736.php


Published On: October 15, 2012