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Drug combo can produce stronger flu treatment, study finds

Combining antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu with antibody therapies may provide a one-two punch to knock out influenza, new research suggests. Photo by huntlh/Pixabay
Combining antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu with antibody therapies may provide a one-two punch to knock out influenza, new research suggests. Photo by huntlh/Pixabay

Aug. 16 (UPI) -- Combining antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu, which has been used for decades, with antibody therapies may provide a one-two punch to knock out influenza, research published Tuesday suggests.

Researchers from McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, found this combination was more effective than either approach alone. It made the antibodies significantly more efficient at killing infected cells and made the drugs more potent.

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The scientists said this could lead to new strategies -- and perhaps a universal flu vaccine -- to protect high-risk groups, including the elderly and children, in the event of a deadly flu pandemic.

The study's findings were published in Cell Reports Medicine.

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"Antibody therapies were used to treat COVID-19, and in theory they could be used to treat flu as a new therapeutic approach," Matthew Miller, a lead author of the study and director of McMaster's Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, said in a news release.

The investigators said using a combination therapy may extend the life of current antiviral drugs because viruses are less likely to become resistant to these drugs when they are delivered with an antibody therapy, the release said.

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According to Miller, better strategies are needed to protect people from flu pandemics "because right now we don't have anything. Seasonal vaccines don't protect us. And we've learned that we can't make them quickly enough to vaccinate everybody if a new pandemic were to emerge."

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For more than a decade, Miller and his research team have studied "broadly neutralizing" antibodies able to fend off a wide range of respiratory viruses, the release said. They are exploring how these antibodies could be tapped to protect against all strains of influenza to create a universal flu vaccine.

In the new study, conducted on mice, the researchers found that when they combined antibodies with antiviral drugs, the drugs improved the virus-fighting properties of the antibodies. The antibodies bind to the surface of an infected cell, then trigger an immune system response to kill the cell before the virus can spread, the release said.

"The mechanism behind how the drug and the antibody therapies work together is very unique and surprising," Ali Zhang, the study's lead author and a doctoral student in McMaster's Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, said in the release.

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Using this combination approach "allows us to both disable a crucial component of the virus, and also boost our own immune system to better track down and prevent the spread of the infection," he said.

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The researchers cited the urgent need for effective therapies for elderly patients, noting this was evident during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when Canadians over age 65 accounted for 80% of pandemic-related deaths in the country in 2020.

Miller said antibody-based therapies could be particularly useful is nursing homes, which are at very high risk of flu outbreaks.

"The elderly are the poorest responders to vaccines, yet need them the most," said Miller, who is also a principal investigator with Canada's Global Nexus for Pandemics and Biological Threats, which is based at McMaster University.

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