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Fight against common flu aided by gene discovery

New treatments for flu could emerge from find of human genes targeted by flu viruses.

Person with flu
The genes found in this study make particularly good targets for drugs to treat flu.

Scientists have found more than 100 human genes that flu viruses use in order to survive in the body after infecting it.

The 121 genes – half of which were discovered for the first time – could be targets for new treatments for life-threatening flu.

Scientists used genome-editing technology, known as CRISPR/Cas9, to investigate each one of more than 19,000 genes in human cells.

The team – led by scientists from the University of Edinburgh’s Intensive Care Unit, the Roslin Institute, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard – recorded how well the flu virus functioned in those cells.

Validating studies

The discovery was then used to validate findings from a large range of previous experiments looking for similar genes. This was done through a newly developed machine learning technique, termed meta-analysis by information content.

New drug targets

Flu viruses rely on making use of human genes to copy themselves and spread through the body.

The genes found in this study make particularly good targets for drugs to treat flu. Drugs can be designed to prevent the flu virus from using a human gene, without changing the gene itself.

Although vaccination against seasonal influenza is an essential part of the public health strategy, its efficacy is variable, and there are few therapeutic options for people who become infected. One of the major problems with drugs to treat flu is that the virus evolves incredibly quickly, so it becomes resistant to antivirals. In contrast, the genes of a person suffering from flu do not change, so a drug targeting the host is harder for the virus to escape from.

Dr Kenneth BaillieUniversity of Edinburgh’s Intensive Care Unit and the Roslin Institute

The study, funded by Wellcome, is published in the journal Nature Communications and on the website of the Baillie Lab.

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

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