Space Research May Accelerate Development Of Flu-Fighting Drug

Even with vaccines, 20-40 million people in the United States catch the flu each year, and thousands are at risk of dying from its complications.

In the future, a new class of prescription drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors offers the prospect for decreasing the duration and severity of the illness and may even prevent the development of symptoms in those exposed to the virus. One of these neuraminidase inhibitors was developed through ground and space research conducted in partnership by NASA and the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The compound was synthesized by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals in Birmingham, Ala., and is now under development by The R.W. Johnson Pharmaceutical Research Institute in Raritan, N.J., a Johnson & Johnson company.

"With the aid of NASA support for space and ground-based research, we successfully mapped the molecular structure of the influenza virus -- exposing its weaknesses," said Dr. Larry DeLucas, director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Sponsored by the Space Product Development Office of NASA's Microgravity Research Program at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., DeLucas' organization is chartered as a NASA Commercial Space Center -- encouraging private industry to benefit from space technology. Dr. Ming Luo, a professor of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, and an international team of crystallographers, developed the "molecular map" of the flu virus using space-grown protein crystals.

Influenza protein crystals flown aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-77 in May 1996 were used to confirm earlier studies and to determine the effectiveness of potential drugs on the flu virus protein.

"By analyzing space-grown crystals of the influenza virus, we were able to get a clearer picture of the virus' structure," said De

Contact: Steve Roy
NASA/Marshall Space Flight Center News Center

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