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Thursday, 15 February, 2001, 16:59 GMT
German scientists offer flu hope
AP Flu vaccines in production
The flu virus adapts quickly to vaccines
By BBC News Online's Ivan Noble

German scientists have discovered a way of targeting the flu virus, which kills thousands of people every year.

A chemical that blocks the way the virus spreads in the body could lead to new ways of treating the illness.

It's very difficult to target influenza because it changes so quickly

Dr Stephan Ludwig
Würzburg University

Existing anti-flu treatments become ineffective as time goes by because the flu virus is able to mutate rapidly into new strains.

The substance, known as U0126, acts against the influenza A virus, which is responsible for around 65% of flu cases worldwide.

Scientists believe the key to the chemical's effectiveness is the way it deals with flu after the virus has invaded the body's cells.

Dr Stephan Ludwig of the MSZ institute at Würzburg University told BBC News Online: "It's very difficult to target influenza with anti-viral agents or vaccines because it changes so quickly.

"We decided to look at the processes going on within the cell."

Cellular hijacker

A virus like influenza A cannot reproduce on its own, so it invades the cells of a host such as a human or an animal.

PA Flu sufferer
Influenza: 'One of the great plagues in the world'.
Once inside, the virus "hijacks" the machinery inside the cell and forces it to make copies of the invader.

The copying process involves a complicated chain of communication within the cell.

Dr Ludwig and his colleagues say they have found a way to disrupt this process.

In theory, the approach should be effective against all strains of the influenza A virus.

Economic damage

If Dr Ludwig's discovery fulfils its promise, thousands of lives could be saved every year.

"Influenza counts as one of the great plagues in the world," he said.

"Its effects are sometimes not appreciated because the victims are very old or very young and tend to die of complications related to the infection.

"Not every sneeze is influenza, but the economic damage is immense," he said, pointing to the German state of Saxony, currently beset by a large-scale outbreak.

Dr Ludwig and his team publish their findings in the scientific journal Nature Cell Biology.

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01 Nov 00 | Health
Relenza 'could protect from flu'
26 Oct 00 | Health
Flu: a plague in history
02 Dec 99 | Sci/Tech
Predicting the flu of the future
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