NASA develops flu drug in space
March 15, 1999
(CNN) -- A joint NASA-industry team has developed a new drug that may decrease the length and severity of the flu and prevent the development of symptoms in those exposed to the virus, NASA said in a statement.
The drug is from a new class of medicines called neuraminidase inhibitors. They are designed to block an active site of an enzyme associated with the flu.
Neuraminidase inhibitors may be used as treatment or prevention, and are effective against a wide variety of influenza strains. Vaccines, in contrast, must be taken before exposure and are only specific to certain strains of the virus.
NASA said an international team of crystallographers had developed a "molecular map" of the flu virus from space-grown protein crystals. This map was then used to design drugs to block undesirable characteristics of the flu virus. On Earth, protein crystals often cannot be grown as large or as well-ordered as researchers desire. In space, crystals form without interference from gravity and give a clearer picture of virus structure. This allows researchers to design another molecule to fit the structure perfectly.
"It's like trying to build a tiny key that fits into a tiny lock," said Dr. Larry De Lucas, director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Except this lock is living, breathing, flexing, changing temperatures, and in constant motion."
The flu virus infects 20 million to 40 million people in the United States alone each year. Even with vaccines, thousands are at risk of dying from complications. Similar space research has yielded new medicines that are now used to fight AIDS and high blood pressure.
According to NASA, protein crystal growth experiments are conducted aboard nearly every U.S. space shuttle mission. Once the International Space Station is completed, researchers will be able to conduct crystallization experiments in micro-gravity for weeks at a time.
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