Human protein offers breakthrough antiviral strategy

One of the most perplexing challenges presented by the swine flu pandemic centered on the question of why some people were killed by a virus that had only a mild impact on the vast majority of its victims.  Now a Harvard researcher says it appears that the answer to that question may lie in IFITM proteins.

According to Professor Stephen Elledge, IFITM proteins--particularly IFITM3--are the body's first-line of defense against a flu virus. When the body is hit with a viral infection, its cells are supposed to ramp up production of the protein to fight the spread of infection. But when stripped of the defense, the virus runs rampant.

"The virus replicated five to ten times better when IFITM3 wasn't there," says Elledge. "The viral protein level was higher and it would replicate faster. IFITM3 really stood out in this regard." And if it turns out that exposing the body to high levels of IFITM3 is safe, the Harvard team could have broken open a new antiviral pathway.

"It's possible that you could deliver it directly to the surface of cells, and have protective effects during flu season, for example," Elledge adds.

- here's the press release from Harvard
- read the Howard Hughes Medical Institute story