Health: Getting Ready for Bird Flu

Nigeria, India, Germany, France... Avian flu has been spreading rapidly among birds, increasing concerns about a possible human pandemic. How could the U.S. be more prepared? Stockpiles of Tamiflu and the development of a trial vaccine are a good start, but researchers say other experimental treatments could ultimately prove even more useful--provided the small biotech companies developing them can successfully usher them though clinical trials and bring them to market in time. Some examples:

Fludase from NexBio Inc. temporarily disables receptors in the nasal passages and airways that the flu virus latches onto. With entry into cells blocked, the virus cannot infect the cells and cause disease. In testing with mice and ferrets, Fludase was effective for both prevention and treatment of multiple strains of influ-enza, including bird flu and ordinary seasonal varieties--yet it's unlikely to cause drug resistance since it targets host cells, not the ever-mutating virus.

DNA vaccines are a novel type of vaccine that could one day be useful against many diseases. Strands of viral DNA are injected into either skin or muscle tissue, where they hijack part of the cells' genetic machinery to produce viral proteins for a matter of weeks or months. These viral proteins provoke an immune response that provides protection. Yet because the cells produce isolated proteins rather than entire viruses, the vaccines appear to be very safe. Vical Inc. and PowderMed Ltd. are both testing DNA vaccines for bird flu. These products can be produced much more quickly than traditional egg-based flu vaccines, have a longer shelf life and can be stored without refrigeration.

Ampligen from Hemispherx Biopharma helps the body boost its production of inter-feron, a crucial component of the immune response--and one that appears to plummet in patients with avian flu. Animal studies suggest that Ampligen could help combat that problem, increasing the effectiveness of both bird-flu vaccines and Tamiflu many times over. The drug even seems to work as a stand-alone treatment--at least, in mice.

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Of course, many promising treatments flame out once they move from animal tests to human trials--and it's still unclear whether avian flu will become readily transmissible among people. But if it does, products like these might one day be a real shot in the arm.

Health: Getting Ready for Bird Flu | News