HK flu story takes turn for the better

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2011, 12:00am


Hong Kong suffered the first major outbreak of bird flu among humans in 1997 and in 2009 famously quarantined more than 300 guests and staff in a hotel for a week during the initial global panic about swine flu after the city's first case was discovered there. It would be ironic therefore if it is also remembered for pioneering research that led to the most effective cure yet for influenza.

That cannot be ruled out after University of Hong Kong researchers discovered that a common drug for bone diseases, including osteoporosis, apparently cured the deadly H5N1 bird flu virus in 'humanised' mice - rodents that had their immune systems 'knocked out' and substituted with human stem cells or lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell.

The common bone-disease prescription drug pamidronate was then found to strengthen gamma delta-T cells, one of the first lines of defence in our immune systems. Nine out of 10 humanised mice given the drug survived an H5N1 infection, compared with one out of 10 not given it. The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, was the first reported use of humanised mice to test drugs or vaccines, according to HKU associate professor Tu Wenwai, who developed the method.

Even though the drug has been used for 20 years and could take less testing, it may still be two to six years before it is ready for flu patients. One big advantage would be that it could be deployed quickly to combat an epidemic or pandemic, whereas vaccines for new flu strains take six to eight months to produce.

Hong Kong researchers may be remembered for more than that. A more effective cure for flu could reduce misuse and overuse of antibiotics, in the mistaken belief they will cure the virus. Abuse of antibiotics is the main cause of drug-resistant infections which, according to experts, poses a dire new threat to humanity.