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A WWII innovation could soon be used in fighting flu deaths

Email Flu deaths could be prevented with a drug used during WWII, researchers find By Iskhandar Razak and staff

Updated July 11, 2019 07:59:53

A man in a white lab coat holds a Petri dish with yellow samples inside. Photo: Associate Professor Ashley Mansell is part of a team investigating how the drugs could save lives. (ABC News: Gemma Hall) Related Story: 'Tip of the iceberg': Influenza cases may be 10 times higher than we thought, researcher says Related Story: Flu death toll rises to 82 in South Australia Related Story: Can I still get my flu shot if I'm sick? Related Story: Are cold and flu tablets worth it? Map: Melbourne 3000

A medication used in World War II as an antidiuretic is one of two drugs that Melbourne researchers believe could reduce the number of people that die from the flu every year.

Key points:

  • Research published today has found existing anti-inflammatory medication could reduce flu deaths
  • One of the drugs was used during WWII to prolong the life of penicillin
  • The flu is becoming more drug-resistant, but the discovery would treat the symptoms instead

Influenza cases have surged Australia-wide in 2019 and the death toll has climbed to about 300 in a season that has been described as "brutal".

A two-year-old boy in WA is thought to have died from the virus and teenagers thought to be perfectly healthy have died after getting the flu.

The flu vaccination can prevent people from getting sick, but until now little has existed to help sufferers in the middle of severe and potentially fatal cases of the virus.

Researchers at Melbourne's Hudson Institute of Medical Research have identified two drugs — the anti-diuretic Probenecid and an anti-arthritis medication — that could change that.

"The potential for these drugs is enormous. Obviously, there is a massive worldwide global health burden for influenza infections," scientist Ashley Mansell said.

"And therefore the applications are huge and have a massive capacity to make a real difference to health outcomes, particularly to the flu, across the world."

The Hudson Institute has spent the past decade looking at how to reduce over-inflammation in the host rather than how to attack the virus, which is becoming increasingly resistant to drugs.

The flu can kill in several ways, but over-inflammation is the primary culprit.

"Inflammation is our friend, inflammation is good, but sometimes it becomes too much. That causes tissue damage, and that is what can actually cause lethality," Associate Professor Mansell said.

The drugs could dampen inflammation symptoms such as fever, chills, swelling, joint paint and redness, which the researchers hope could save lives.

Medicines could be answer to 'mutating' flu

A woman with short red hair and a man with a grey beard, wearing white lab coats, in a laboratory. Photo: Michelle Tate and Ashley Mansell are hopeful their research will save lives. (ABC News: Gemma Hall)

Probenecid was developed in the 1940s and used during World War II to prolong the life of penicillin, and is now used to treat gout.

Researcher Michelle Tate said the drug had a "very good safety profile" after being used for decades.

The second drug identified by the institute as a potential weapon against flu deaths is known as AZ11645373 and has been clinically trialled for treating arthritis.

In findings published in the British Journal of Pharmacology today, the scientists said both drugs target a molecule — the ATP receptor P2X7 — that plays a key role in inducing inflammation.

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What really spreads the flu?
Sneezes, hands or children. When it comes to flu, everybody has their own avoidance tactics.

Associate Professor Mansell said the flu had become "very smart" and "mutates at an excessive rate" so anti-viral medication had become less effective in prevention.

The research suggests the way the drugs interact with the immune system to slow inflammation could save the lives of people once they contracted severe cases of influenza.

Dr Tate, who authored the journal report, said the fact these drugs already exist was a huge boost to the research and development phase.

"We could re-purpose them for the flu, much quicker than if we were to design a brand new drug," she said.

It could be years before the drugs are available on the market to treat influenza and the team needs to confirm how they would be administered to flu patients.

The institute is now trying to collaborate with other health authorities for clinical trials to treat Avian flu and other severe influenza infections.

Associate Professor Mansell said the P2X7 molecule was involved other illnesses and the drugs could be also used to treat other health problems in the future.

"Infectious disease, what we call sterile diseases, things like gout, things like cancer even, it has been implicated in. And therefore, these drugs may have applications further than just actually treating the flu," he said.

Topics: influenza, health, medical-research, science-and-technology, melbourne-3000, australia

First posted July 11, 2019 01:48:50

Contact Iskhandar Razak

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