An Achilles' heel for all strains of influenza may be plant-based anti-oxidants, states a new study by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The study shows anti-oxidants - the same substances found in plant-based foods such as apples, grapes and strawberries - might hold the key in preventing the flu virus from wreaking havoc on the lungs.
"The recent outbreak of H1N1 influenza and the rapid spread of this strain across the world highlights the need to better understand how this virus damages the lungs and to find new treatments. Additionally, our research shows that anti-oxidants may prove beneficial in the treatment of flu," said study co-author Sadis Matalon.
Matalon and colleagues showed the flu virus damages lungs through its M2 protein, which attacks the cells that line the inner surfaces of the lungs-epithelial cells.
Specifically, the M2 protein disrupts lung epithelial cells' ability to remove liquid from inside the lungs, setting the stage for pneumonia and other lung problems.
The researchers made this discovery by conducting three sets of experiments using the M2 protein and the lung protein they damage.
First, frog eggs were injected with the lung protein alone to measure its function. Second, researchers injected frog eggs with both the M2 protein and the lung protein and found that the function of the lung protein was significantly decreased.
Using molecular biology techniques, scientists isolated the segment of the M2 protein responsible for the damage to the lung protein.
Then they demonstrated that without this segment, the protein was unable to cause damage.
Third, the full M2 protein (with the "offending" segment intact) and the lung protein were then re-injected into the frog eggs along with drugs known to remove oxidants.
This too prevented the M2 protein from causing damage to the lung protein. These experiments were repeated using cells from human lungs with exactly the same results.
The study appears in the November 2009 print issue of the FASEB Journal.
Dr. Gerald Weissmann, editor in chief of the FASEB Journal said: "Although vaccines will remain the first line of intervention against the flu for a long time to come, this study opens the door for entirely new treatments geared toward stopping the virus after you're sick.