Common food preservative can prevent spread of deadly H7N9 bird flu

Washington: A new research has suggested that a common food additive can block a deadly new strain of avian influenza virus from infecting healthy cells.

The compound, in wide use as a preservative, binds to a part of the flu virus that has never been targeted by any existing antiviral drug, raising hopes for its effectiveness against multi-drug-resistant flu viruses.

Michael Caffrey, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at UIC said that the recent H7N9 outbreak in China this past March had a mortality rate of more than 20 percent. That strain, which is new, is already showing resistance to the majority of existing drugs used to treat it.

Flu viruses enter host cells using a special protein called hemagglutinin, which acts as a "key" that opens receptors on the cell surface. If hemagglutinin is disabled, the virus is locked out and can't infect cells.

UIC researchers, led by Caffrey, found that the FDA-approved food additive tert-butyl hydroquinone sticks to a specific region on the hemagglutinin molecule. The additive attaches to the Achilles' heel of the virus-a loop-shaped portion of hemagglutinin necessary for binding to cells, making cell infection impossible.

The loop on the hemagglutinin molecule represents a new therapeutic target, since existing drugs don't go after it, Caffrey said.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.