A Revolutionary Approach to Flu Prevention: New Molecules Stop Infection Before It Starts

Sick Woman Flu

Scientists have developed novel drug-like molecules that could potentially prevent influenza infections by targeting the initial stage of the viral infection process. This represents a shift from traditional flu medications, which only treat after infection has occurred. The research indicates significant progress in the development of a preventative treatment for influenza, potentially reducing the need for annual vaccinations.

Scientists at Scripps Research have developed a drug-like molecule that potentially blocks the initial stage of type A influenza infection.

Currently, flu medications work by tackling the virus once it has already infected the body. However, researchers at Scripps Research and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine are taking a proactive approach. They have developed drug-like molecules aimed at preventing influenza infections before they start by blocking the initial stage of the viral infection process.

The drug-like inhibitors block the virus from entering the body’s respiratory cells—specifically, they target hemagglutinin, a protein on the surface of type A influenza viruses. The findings, published on May 16, 2024, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), represent an important step forward in developing a drug that can prevent influenza infection.

“We’re trying to target the very first stage of influenza infection since it would be better to prevent infection in the first place, but these molecules could also be used to inhibit the spread of the virus after one’s infected,” says corresponding author Ian Wilson, DPhil, the Hansen Professor of Structural Biology at Scripps Research.

The inhibitors will need to be further optimized and tested before they can be assessed as antivirals in humans, but the researchers say that these molecules ultimately have the potential to help prevent and treat seasonal flu infections. And, unlike vaccines, the inhibitors likely wouldn’t need to be updated yearly.

Initial Discovery and Optimization

The scientists had previously identified a small molecule, F0045(S), with a limited capacity to bind and inhibit H1N1 type A influenza viruses.

“We began by developing a high-throughput hemagglutinin binding assay that allowed us to rapidly screen large libraries of small molecules and found the lead compound F0045(S) with this process,” says corresponding author Dennis Wolan, PhD, senior principal scientist at Genentech and former associate professor at Scripps Research.

Compound 7 a Molecular Inhibitor of the Influenza Virus

Compound 7, a molecular inhibitor of the influenza virus, interacting with the influenza virus’ hemagglutinin protein. Credit: Scripps Research

In this study, the team aimed to optimize F0045(S)’s chemical structure to design molecules with better drug-like properties and more specific binding ability to the virus. To start, the Wolan lab used “SuFEx click-chemistry,” which was first developed by two-time Nobel laureate and co-author K. Barry Sharpless, PhD, to generate a large library of candidate molecules with various tweaks to F0045(S)’s original structure. When they screened this library, the researchers identified two molecules—4(R) and 6(R)—with superior binding affinity compared to F0045(S).

Next, Wilson’s lab produced X-ray crystal structures of 4(R) and 6(R) bound to the flu hemagglutinin protein so that they could identify the molecules’ binding sites, determine the mechanisms behind their superior binding ability, and identify areas for improvement.

“We showed that these inhibitors bind much more tightly to the viral antigen hemagglutinin than the original lead molecule did,” says Wilson. “By using click-chemistry, we basically extended the compounds’ ability to interact with influenza by making them target additional pockets on the antigen surface.”

Enhancements and Future Directions

When the researchers tested 4(R) and 6(R) in cell culture to verify their antiviral properties and safety, they found 6(R) was non-toxic and had more than 200 times improved cellular antiviral potency compared to F0045(S).

Finally, the investigators used a targeted approach to further optimize 6(R) and develop compound 7, which proved to have even better antiviral ability.

“This is the most potent small-molecule hemagglutinin inhibitor developed to date,” says corresponding author Seiya Kitamura, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral fellow at Scripps Research and is now an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

In future studies, the team plans to continue to optimize compound 7 and to test the inhibitor in animal models of influenza.

“In terms of potency, it will be hard to improve the molecule any further, but there are many other properties to consider and optimize, for example, pharmacokinetics, metabolism, and aqueous solubility,” says Kitamura.

Because the inhibitors developed in this study only target H1N1 strains of influenza, researchers are also working to develop equivalent drug-like inhibitors to target other strains of influenza such as H3N2 and H5N1.

Reference: “Ultrapotent influenza hemagglutinin fusion inhibitors developed through SuFEx-enabled high-throughput medicinal chemistry” by Seiya Kitamura, Ting-Hui Lin, Chang-Chun David Lee, Akihiro Takamura, Rameshwar U. Kadam, Ding Zhang, Xueyong Zhu, Lucas Dada, Emiko Nagai, Wenli Yu, Yao Yao, K. Barry Sharpless, Ian A. Wilson and Dennis W. Wolan, 16 May 2024, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2310677121

This work was supported by the NIH, the Nathan Shock Institute of Aging Research, and Einstein-Montefiore.

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