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As Flu Season Wanes, Researchers Discover Potentially Powerful Flu-Fighting Compound

APR 19, 2017 | EINAV KEET
As the 2016-2017 flu season continues to bring a record number of cases of the virus to some states, and health officials report new influenza-associated pediatric deaths, a new study has found a flu-fighting compound coming from a surprising source.

With 18 states still reporting widespread flu activity, the United States continues to experience an elevated but declining flu season in April. States such as Oregon and Alabama are now reporting only local flu activity, according to the FluView report for the week ending April 8. However, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin, are still experiencing widespread flu activity with influenza B viruses accounting for 61% of the respiratory samples that were reported in the most recent week by public health laboratories. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported four new pediatric flu-related deaths for the 2016-2017 season.

Health officials are pointing to the late season rise of influenza B as the culprit behind the ongoing flu outbreaks in states such as North Dakota, which has seen a record number of flu cases over the course of the 2016-2017 flu season. The North Dakota Department of Public Health has reported 7,045 cases of the flu in the state so far this season, which is much higher than the 1,942 flu cases reported in the previous season, and higher still than the 6,443 flu cases reported during the 2014-2015 season. While the influenza A (H3N2) virus continues to cause new illnesses in North Dakota, influenza B viruses have caused the majority of recent cases in the state, making up a larger proportion of flu illness this season than is typically reported, according to the state’s most recent weekly influenza update.

Flu shots remain the best way to avoid catching the virus and reduce the rate of flu-related pediatric mortality each season, and currently, antiviral neuraminidase inhibitor drugs are the most effective treatment for flu illnesses. However, now, a new study published in the journal Immunity suggests that a compound found on the skin mucous of a frog from southern India may be a powerful flu fighter. The research team—comprised of researchers from Emory University in Georgia, Rajiv Gandhi Center for Biotechnology in India, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York—studied the host defense peptides released by the Hydrophylax bahuvistara frog species. After isolating and closely studying these peptides, the scientists found that many of them have antibacterial and antiviral properties.

In the new study, researchers discovered a compound they named “urumin,” which works to bind the surface protein hemagglutinin, found on many strains of the influenza virus. While three other similar peptides targeted the flu virus, they were also toxic to human red blood cells; urumin, however, proved deadly to the flu without harming human cells.

"It's a natural innate immune mediator that all living organisms maintain,” said study co-author Joshy Jacob, PhD, in describing the production host defense peptides in a recent press release. “We just happened to find one that the frog makes that just happens to be effective against the H1 influenza type."

With their discovery, the team notes that urumin may offer an important new weapon for antiviral treatments during flu outbreaks.
 
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