Woman suffering from influenza
Woman suffering from influenza

The two drugs that could fight off the flu

AN anti-inflammatory drug used using World War II has emerged as a potential new flu treatment that could be used at any stage of the illness.

Melbourne researchers have found that two existing medications - one once used to prolong the life of penicillin and now called on to treat gout and the other an experimental anti-arthritis drug - could be key to reducing flu-related deaths.

Co-lead researcher Dr Michelle Tate, from the Hudson Institute of Medical Research, said it was not the virus itself that was deadly, but the over-reaction of the immune system that went into a dangerous overdrive causing tissue and organ damage.

"The flu virus has become resistant to antivirals, and you have to take them within the first couple of days of getting sick," Dr Tate said.

"People typically present to hospital five days after they get sick, and apart from oxygen and supportive care, there are no actual treatments for them at this point.

"There is a real fine balance, because you want some immune response to fight the infection.

"Unfortunately with the flu, in severe cases the immune system builds to a point where it's too strong and causes damage."

Three years ago the Hudson team uncovered a key player in what triggers the immune system to come to "hyper-inflammation" in response to flu.

The next step was to take two drugs that act on this protein, Probenecid and a second drug called AZ11645373, and test them in mice.

Both drugs were able to dampen the immune system - at all stages of influenza - so the animal could fight off infection.

The findings, also involving Monash University, have been published in the British Journal of Pharmacology as Australia is amid one of the most deadly flu seasons.

At least 250 people - including 50 Victorians - have already died this winter, more than a month before the expected season peak.

Last week a 13-year-old Melbourne girl died three days after showing flu-like symptoms.

"We think about a good drug being very potent, but in this case we don't want to get rid of the immune response all together," Dr Tate said.

"These drugs are taking the edge off, rather than completely ablating the immune response.

"Vaccines target a really specific strain of the virus, and you have to be vaccinated before you get sick.

"With these drugs, by targeting the immune response in the host, the virus isn't going to become resistant to these drugs."

They researchers are now planning to team with hospitals to run a clinical trial of these new treatments.