The ‘V' symbol has travelled the decades under different guises. It stood for ‘victory' in times of war, as a sign of peace during the sixties and has taken on a new significance in the scientific battle against viral contagions. Two EU-funded projects, Virgil and Vizier, are on the front lines.
Infectious diseases are formidable foes in a battle being waged to eradicate or, at least, contain them. For example, strains of harmful bacteria are now so resistant to many antibiotics that diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, are making a comeback. Likewise, viruses mutate and develop resistance to anti-viral drugs – something already seen with HIV. Could we end up with a ‘super strain' of influenza that defies modern science?
|Eye-catching logo of one of Virgil's platforms for clinical surveillance of viral drug resistance in Europe.|
© Virgil Network of Excellence
The EU-supported Virgil research network is making sure that Europe's doctors and scientists working on viral resistance pool their effort to prevent the doom scenario of a pandemic strain of influenza. Professionals from some 20 institutes in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, The Netherlands and the UK are helping to organise and run seven virtual platforms for research on resistance to drugs in hepatitis B and C as well as in influenza. To date, the network counts some 60 organisations in 14 countries.
Virgil, or the ‘European Surveillance Network for Vigilance against Viral Resistance', kicked off in May 2004 and will spend the next four years (and in principle beyond) and €9 million in EU funds structuring and coordinating what was previously a fragmented research field. Several of the platforms have reported results which are already helping Europe keep guard against these virulent enemies.
©For example, the Virgil-Surveil platform designed a standardised swab form to be used Europe-wide for providing information on current use of antivirals and to collect clinical signs and symptoms of resistant strains. Virgil-Clinvir has set up several central repositories for studying hepatitis and flu resistance. Meanwhile, Virgil-Innotech has discovered or refined new cell lines for hepatitis C and influenza, and a DNA on a chip programme is underway to analyse drug-resistant viruses.
New drugs, too
As Virgil keeps a vigil on viral resistance, Vizier – ‘Comparative Structural Genomics on Viral Enzymes Involved in Replication' – will be working to develop new drugs to keep one step ahead of them. Looking at influenza (of particular interest in light of growing avian flu concerns), four drugs are currently available for treating flu infection. These are the first-generation anti-influenza drugs Amantadine and Rimantadine, and the second-generation anti-influenza drugs Oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and Zanamivir (Relenza).
Today, resistance to Amantadine and Rimantadine is common. Indeed, H5N1 ‘avian flu' strain, known to be resistant to these drugs, are already circulating in Asia. Oseltamivir and Zanamivir are more potent, say the researchers behind the EU-funded Vizier project, and resistance does not appear so readily. But it could be only a matter of time. Recently, Oseltamivir-resistant H5N1 strains have been identified in infected patients in Asia.
“Since the resistance profiles of Oseltamivir and Zanamivir overlap to some extent,” note the Vizier scientists in a statement, “it is of utmost importance to have other drugs at hand that have a different mode of action – and thus a different resistance profile.”
Groups from nearly 30 institutions around the globe, including Russian and African teams, are studying various targets of the replication cycle, including the non-structural proteins of influenza and other RNA viruses. The five-year Vizier project is putting €13 million in EU funding towards understanding the precise function and unravelling the structure of these proteins.
“[This] will be key to identifying compounds that inhibit their function and thus the replication of influenza viruses,” predicts the team. Their findings should open new paths for drugs developed to treat a diverse set of RNA viruses, including measles, dengue fever, hepatitis C, and the now widely publicised avian influenza and SARS. This could save millions of lives and many more millions in health care costs worldwide. Measles, for example, infects 45 million people annually, resulting in around 1 million deaths. Hepatitis C cases exceed 180 million annually, while dengue fever strikes 300 million and influenza up to hundreds of millions every year.
Project information, EU press briefings