How to Fight the Flu? With a Spoonful of Sugars of Course

by Gabrielle DeMarco on May 19, 2009

Meet some very complex carbohydrates – 1,2,3-triaxole-linked sialic acid derivatives. These sugars could hold the chemical key to unlocking an entirely new way of treating the flu.

Developed by one of this year’s Scientific American 10, Robert Linhardt, these sneaky molecules trick the flu virus, preventing it from escaping an infected cell and moving onward in the body to infect other healthy cells. In other words, what appears to be a random assembly of elements is actually a new way to stop the flu virus in its tracks.

How can something like a slightly modified sugar stop the flu? A very good disguise.

When the flu virus infects the body it enters the cell by binding to sialic acid on the outside of the cell. Of course the infection of one cell does not an infection make, so the virus needs to somehow get out of the cell to infect other cells. To make this great escape, a portion of the cell known as neuraminidase (the N part of the H1N1 or H5N1 titles) chops up the sialic acid that helped the virus gain entry and breaks free.

What Linhardt has been able to do, which no major drug manufacturer currently does, is to develop sugars that mimic the sialic acid so closely that the virus attacks them instead of the real deal and remain trapped in the cell. Infection stopped.

Linhardt’s new compounds are already proving to be just as effective at blocking neuraminidase as the most popular drugs on the market. And he is taking his research one giant step farther by blocking the other portion of the virus, the H portion, known as hemagglutinin. No other drug on the market takes on the big H.

For more information on this research check out this story that I sent out today.