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Experts have discovered a way to keep the flu from spreading

Scientists at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine have discovered a potential new method to prevent the spread of influenza in humans, drawing from experiments conducted on infant mice. 

The research may ultimately represent a significant advancement in the fight against seasonal flu, a notorious killer that claims over 36,000 lives annually in the United States alone.

“In the last century, influenza A virus (IAV) has led to numerous pandemics, solidifying its enduring presence and burden to humans through continuous transmission. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand the biology of IAV transmission and devise improved strategies to contain its spread,” wrote the study authors. 

Understanding the mechanism

The study was focused on the interaction between viruses and sialic acids (SAs), sugar molecules found on the surfaces of cells in the mammalian respiratory tract. 

The sialic acids act like locks to which viral particles – acting as keys – attach to initiate infections. The research team set out to inhibit this attachment process.

Revolutionary findings

The experts used a novel approach of desialylation, which involves stripping away SA receptors in the nasal cavities of infant mice using a neuraminidase enzyme. 

This process significantly impeded the transmission of influenza A from mouse to mouse. The enzyme reduced transmission rates dramatically, from 51% to 100% in various influenza strains tested.

Ideal model for studying the flu 

Infant mice were chosen for this study due to their high concentration of sialic acids in the upper respiratory tract, mirroring the human respiratory system. 

This similarity makes infant mice an ideal model for studying flu transmission in children, who are known to be significant vectors in spreading the virus.

Exciting potential 

Study lead author and infectious disease specialist Dr. Mila Ortigoza expressed optimism about the potential application of this method in humans. 

“If further experiments in humans prove successful, desialylating neuraminidase enzymes may prevent the flu from spreading,” said Dr. Ortigoza, who is also an assistant professor in the Departments of Medicine and Microbiology at NYU Langone.

A proactive approach

Dr. Ortigoza emphasized the novelty of this strategy. It represents a shift from conventional methods, which mainly involve vaccines and symptom treatments, to a proactive approach in preventing the spread of infectious diseases by treating potential hosts.

“While current approaches with vaccines and treatments target the virus, ours is the first study to demonstrate that treating the host, either infected mice or potentially infected humans, to prevent them from transmitting the virus to another host could be another effective strategy for combating pervasive infectious diseases.”

Dr. Ortigoza noted that extensive clinical trials are necessary before this treatment can be approved for human use. The research team is planning further experiments to understand why infants are more susceptible to respiratory viruses and to explore if blocking sialic acids can prevent flu spread in children.

The research is published in the American Society for Microbiology journal mBio

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