Flu season is once again around the corner. But if a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its way, the disease might not hit so hard in future winters.
The researchers say they have discovered a potential way to prevent viruses from evolving to resist vaccines and treatment.
Influenza viruses mutate quickly, the university said in a statement. For that reason, flu vaccines have to be redesigned every year.
“It’s relatively easy to make a drug that kills a virus, or an antibody that stops a virus from propagating, but it’s very hard to make one that the virus doesn’t promptly escape from once you start using it,” said Matthew Shoulders, a senior author on the study and a chemistry professor at MIT.
Shoulders and his team found that the flu virus’s ability to evolve depends on its ability to hijack proteins called chaperones, the university said.
Proteins start out as unshaped strands of material. Chaperones shape them into the structures that allow them to function, Shoulders said. Viruses can use these chaperones to change shape themselves and thus resist vaccines.
“Our data suggest that, at some point in the future, targeting host chaperones might restrict the ability of a virus to evolve,” Shoulders said.
The team studied the evolution of the flu virus in three different environments. They inhibited a key chaperone in one environment and enhanced the levels of several chaperones in another, the university said. Then they infected the environments with the flu and allowed the virus to evolve.
The flu mutated fastest in the cells with increased chaperone levels, while changing more slowly in the cells with inhibited chaperones, Shoulders said.
In addition to studying influenza, the team is testing HIV and other rapidly mutating viruses to see if inhibiting chaperones could prevent those viruses from mutating and becoming treatment-resistant.