Using old drugs to treat new viruses

02 Mar 2016 16:16:56.817

PA 51/16

New research has shown that a group of drugs commonly used as anaesthetics or for treating depression may be used to defeat viruses.

The study, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, centred on the Bunyavirus family that includes viruses such as the Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic virus which can cause fatal disease similar to Ebola.

Dr Janet Daly, who led the team at The University of Nottingham, said: “This project brought together experts in human and animal viruses from the universities of Nottingham, Leeds and Glasgow.

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“The research found that common drugs in everyday use as a local anaesthetic (bupivacaine), for the prevention and treatment of malaria (quinine and choloroquine) and as an anti-depressant (fluoxetine) were successful in preventing several human and animal viruses from infecting cells by blocking the ion channels that regulate potassium levels in those cells.”

Academics in Nottingham’s School of Veterinary Medicine used a live virus system to directly compare how different viruses were affected by each drug. Research fellow Dr Barnabas King, explained: “The viruses usually kill the cells after five days, but the presence of protective drugs led to cells surviving beyond the five-day period.” 

The lead investigator on the project, Dr Jamel Mankouri of the University of Leeds, said: “Initially we observed that these viruses are highly dependent upon the gradient of potassium that exists across the membranes of the cells.”

Rapid response

Ion channels normally control the balance of chemicals such as potassium, calcium and sodium within our cells. Adding drugs that specifically block the ion channels that regulate potassium levels blocked the ability of all of the Bunyaviruses tested to infect cells, but did not have any effect on unrelated viruses.

Dr John Barr, who helped develop the idea at Leeds, added: “Very few new antiviral drugs have made it into clinical use in the last 15 years. One of the main reasons is cost; these are very expensive drugs to develop.

“Taking a drug that has already been proven to be safe, and using it to target a different condition or infection — a process known as drug repurposing — bypasses this expensive and time-consuming stage. “There are many drugs targeting ion channels that are currently in use for a wide range of conditions. Our work shows that some of these might be suitable to treat virus infections.”

Dr Kohl, who headed up the research at the University of Glasgow, said: “If existing drugs are confirmed to be effective against known members of a particular virus family, this opens up the possibility of using these ‘off-the-shelf’ treatments in a rapid response against dangerous new related virus strains that emerge.”

The paper, Modulation of Potassium Channels Inhibits Bunyavirus Infection, is published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

— Ends —

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham has 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with a “distinct” approach to internationalisation, which rests on those full-scale campuses in China and Malaysia, as well as a large presence in its home city.’ (Times Good University Guide 2016). It is also one of the most popular universities in the UK among graduate employers and the winner of ‘Outstanding Support for Early Career Researchers’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2015. It is ranked in the world’s top 75 by the QS World University Rankings 2015/16, and 8th in the UK by research power according to the Research Excellence Framework 2014. It has been voted the world’s greenest campus for three years running, according to Greenmetrics Ranking of World Universities.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Janet Daly in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science at University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 6475,

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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