Researchers find new clues into spread of influenza B

Summer's almost over and so our thoughts turn increasingly to...flu season. Fortunately, researchers at Rutgers and the University of Texas at Austin think about this topic 365 days a year and now believe they have a way to help scientists come up with better ways of treating seasonal flu caused by the influenza B strain. And they also think they know why influenza B is contracted only by humans.

First, a few more facts about the flu. While influenza B is relatively mild, its cousin influenza A causes much more damage. It crosses species and was responsible for a great flu pandemic in 1918, others in 1968 and 1977, and the avian flu that made news in the middle of the last decade. Understanding why influenza B is limited to humans will help scientists better understand how influenza A strains are able to cross species, researchers said.

Gaetano Montelione at Rutgers has been able to sketch out what happens when an influenza virus protein attacks a human protein known as interferon-stimulated gene 15 protein or ISG15. This essentially disarms the human cell's defenses and paves the way for a bigger flu invasion. "Our study shows the basis by which non-structural protein 1 of influenza B, or NS1B, binds to a human host protein, immobilizing it to prevent it from fighting the virus," Montelione said in a release. So, you want to stop the flu, find a way to block this initial binding between NS1B and ISG15.

The rest is up to other researchers to search for the right chemicals that keep those two separated. "Flu infections continue to be a major health problem, with more effective drugs critically needed to treat infected individuals and control potential pandemics," Aaron Shatkin, director of the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine at Rutgers, said in a release. "This discovery opens new possibilities for achieving these very important goals."

- read the release
- and the abstract in PNAS