WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2016

Food additive could prevent spread of avian flu

A common food additive may stop a deadly strain of avian influenza virus from infecting healthy cells, according to a study recently published in PLOS ONE.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine found that tert-butyl hydroquinone, a U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved food additive, binds to a part of the flu virus never before targeted by existing antiviral drugs. The finding raises hopes that the common preservative can also be effective against multi-drug-resistant flu viruses.

"The recent H7N9 outbreak in China this past March had a mortality rate of more than 20 percent," Michael Caffrey, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UIC, said. "The need to develop new antiviral therapeutics now is crucial."

Flu viruses use a special protein called hemagglutinin to enter host cells. The researchers found that tert-butyl hydroquinone stuck to a specific region on the hemagglutinin molecular that made cell infection impossible. The loop-shaped portion of the hemagglutinin represents a new therapeutic target.

"Any drugs that focus on the hemagglutinin loop would be totally novel to flu viruses, and so resistance, if developed, would still be a long way off," Caffrey said.

The researchers are now looking for methods to enhance the food additive's ability to prevent infection. While the compound is used in a variety of foods, questions remain regarding its safety when consumed in high doses.