Flu pill could work by mimicking the immune system

Hope of a new pill to treat flu: Scientists find drug designed to treat multiple strains of the virus protects mice from fatal infection

  • Dutch pharmaceutical firm Janssen is developing a drug to fight multiple strains
  • It says it works by binding to parts of the virus which don’t mutate as often
  • The pill could be cheaper and easier to use than existing antibody injections 

A pill to fight the flu could be closer than expected as scientists reveal they are developing a drug which mimics the immune system.

The medication may be a promising shot at a cure because it can work against various strains of the virus and is cheap to make, experts say.

It works by sticking to the flu virus to stop it being able to attack the body’s cells and trigger the illness.

The drug’s developers say they have already seen it successfully ‘neutralise’ flu infections in lab tests and even mice protect mice from usually-fatal doses of the virus. 

Dutch pharmaceutical firm Janssen is developing a drug which attaches to the parts of viruses which barely change as influenza mutates into different strains (stock image of flu viruses)

Scientists at the pharmaceutical company Janssen in the Netherlands are developing the drug, currently only known as JNJ4796.

When they tested the drug on mice and gave the animals a dose of flu 25 times higher than would usually kill them, they survived, the New Scientist reported.

JNJ is a medicine which mimics antibodies – proteins in the blood which attach to invading viruses and destroy them.

The body produces antibodies naturally when it is exposed to an infection, but this can take days and not happen quickly enough to avoid someone becoming sick.

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By putting this new drug into a pill, doctors could produce an antibody effect when someone is diagnosed, which could be quick enough to stop the illness taking hold.

‘[This] holds promise as an urgently sought-after therapeutic option offering a complementary [treatment] to existing antiviral drugs,’ the researchers wrote in the journal Science. 

It is already possible to fight viral infections by injecting antibodies, but they can be costly to make and do not usually work on more than one strain of an infection.

This means new batches need to be made every time a virus mutates which, when it comes to flu, tends to happen every year.

But JNJ’s developers say it targets a part of the flu virus which barely changes between strains, meaning it could be an all-in-one pill able to fight various types.

And the new technique could pave the way for developing other antiviral drugs in future, by removing the need to recreate expensive antibodies, and overcoming the problem of changing strains.

Janssen now plans to continue testing its drug and find out whether it is safe for humans to use.


The US Government has been scorned for lifting its ban on experiments to engineer deadly bird flu which could infect humans. 

Research into the viruses will soon be allowed to carry on, despite experts warning people could die if the pathogens break out of laboratories. 

Scientists say they want to study the virus ‘to protect human health’ so they can learn more about it and be better prepared for a pandemic.

But Professor Steven Salzberg, a biomedical engineering expert at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, said he cannot fathom why the US National Institutes of Health, which has permitted the ‘dangerous’ research, is allowing it to happen.

‘I’ve said it before, more than once,’ he wrote in a column for Forbes magazine.

‘Engineering the flu to be more virulent is a terrible idea… This research has the potential to cause millions of deaths.’ 

Professor Salzberg claimed two scientists have spent years trying to mutate the avian flu to spread between humans.

But the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Government’s medical research agency, put the research on hold in 2014 because of safety concerns.

Despite a letter signed by hundreds of scientists from around the world, the NIH has now lifted the ban and will allow Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka to continue their experiment.

Science magazine reported last month a government board had decided to allow the research to continue but would not publicly release details of its review. 

As a result, the government will consider new funding applications for research in this specific area of virology.

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