EU projects Virgil and Vizier put the ‘V' in viral research
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.
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
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