Researchers at Rice University in Texas have found a common Achilles heel among many strains of influenza that could render the virus virtually harmless, unable to replicate itself and spread.
A special protein present in seasonal and even bird flu strains has been found that is chiefly responsible for modifying the genetic information of the virus so it can detach and spread. This particular protein loses the ability to do so when modified even slightly, stopping replication, and halting the virus in its tracks.
Current drugs on the market like Tamiflu and Relenza take a different approach, preventing the infectious cells from attaching to and infecting areas of the upper respiratory tract. While they slow the rate of infection, they don't directly attack the virus.
It is believed that an additive can be developed and combined with the current medications used to battle the flu, each bolstering the effectiveness of the other. Now researchers simply have to perfect a way of introducing it to hosts with a minimum of side effects.
In the quest for discovery, three-dimensional models were built of the virus based off x-ray crystallography. As the models were built and interaction and replication were simulated in the lab, this 'weak spot' in the tail section of the virus cells revealed itself as crucial in the process of spreading the viral RNA and infecting other cells. Introducing a deformity to that section would stop it from linking with other cells, and it would "die on the vine," so to speak.
This finding is big news in the scientific and medical communities. The flu continually adapts, becoming more resistant to the latest drug treatments, and a new way of attacking it is growing ever more important. The fact that all Type A influenza viruses possess this protein means that if one safe treatment can be developed, it would work on treating all strains in this category, including the seasonal strain and the Avian Flu that has been making headlines lately.