During the recent World Conference of Science Journalists in Switzerland, Francesco Stellacci, a materials scientist at EPFL, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, called for that to change. His lab is using the novel approach of developing nanotechnology to create particles that would apply physical pressure to kill viruses as opposed to the traditional pharmaceutical route.
“We need drugs that tackle a wide-ranging number of viruses,” he says. “So many people are dying each year from viral diseases, but the research on this concept of broad-spectrum antivirals is not prolific.”
World Health Organization statistics dating from 2016 show that viruses kill significant numbers of people in the Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes North Africa and the Middle East along with Afghanistan. According to the data, various strains of hepatitis kill 520,000 people per year in the region and 920,000 people die of measles. Separate figures say the influenza virus kills close to 650,000 people around the world each year.
Egypt has the world’s highest prevalence of hepatitis C, a viral disease that can be handled with expensive drugs if caught in time. But if the disease is left untreated for too long it can cause liver cancer.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is also on the rise in the Arab world, even though effective and early treatment can now suppress the levels of the virus so that HIV-positive people can live normal lives and no longer be infectious to others. (See a related article: “AIDS Deaths Soar in the Arab Region.”)
Other viruses, however, can’t be managed as well as hepatis and HIV. The re-emergent Ebola virus has killed more than 1,800 people in Democratic Republic of the Congo, in the second deadliest outbreak of the disease. Some treatments and a vaccine exist for the disease, but human behavior—including attacks on health care workers and the desire of people to take care of sick family members instead of sending them to treatment centers—is fueling the spread of the disease.
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Potential New Tools
Broad-spectrum antibiotics don’t work on viruses because viruses are fundamentally different from bacteria. Many antibiotics target the bacterial cell wall, but viruses don’t have cell walls. That’s why many campaigns to thwart viral illnesses are often focused on preventative vaccines that only work for one type of virus.
This, says Stellacci, shows the need for new antivirals that aren’t specific in which viruses they fight. “There are a lot of efforts to cure viruses on a specific virus-by-virus basis,” he says. “It could be cheaper to create broad-spectrum antivirals.”
Doctors welcome the concept of broad-spectrum antivirals as an additional tool in their arsenal to fight viral diseases when prevention fails.
“We need antiviral drugs. The situation in Egypt is very bad, we have millions of patients [for viral diseases],” says Ahmed Refaat, a professor in the faculty of medicine at Assiut University in Upper Egypt. “But it is important that they are effective, with side effects that can be managed and at the same time be inexpensive.”
Mohamed Sabour, a professor of gastroenterology and hepatology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, also welcomes the idea of broad-spectrum antivirals but agrees with Refaat that they would need to be cheap to ensure his hepatitis patients don’t neglect their treatment.
“Eighty percent of my patients are infected with viruses, especially hepatitis C and B,” says Sabour. “This is the biggest health problem facing Egypt.”
Promising Results in the Lab
Stellacci has developed nanoparticles that surround a virus and bind with each other. They then contract to apply a physical pressure to the virus, causing it to burst. The method isn’t specific to a single type of virus, which he hopes will mean it could be broad-spectrum and therefore used against a wide range of different viruses.
So far, the concept has been proven to work in a test tube environment against the herpes simplex virus, human papilloma virus, respiratory syncytial virus (which infects infants and small children), dengue and the lentivirus. Additionally, tests of the concept have been effective in human tissue samples infected with herpes and again in mice infected with the respiratory syncytial virus.
Despite the progress made, it’s still a long road ahead before Stellacci’s work results in a medicine routinely prescribed to patients as antibiotics are today. Further animal trials followed by human trials are needed. While it’s impossible to predict how long this process would take, it’s rare for clinical approval to take less than a decade.
Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed additional reporting to this article.