Atishoo! Atishoo! They all cash in

A flu epidemic is good news for a company with a 'wonder drug' in the lab. Liz Hunt looks behind the hype

Nobles at the courts of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots referred to it as the "newe acquaintance". In 1568, a Thomas Willis said that it appeared to be sent "by some blast of stars", and in 1775 it was reported that 20,000 people had been "seized in one night".

More than 200 years later influenza is still grabbing headlines. One of the most common and debilitating of global infections, the virus can have a devastating impact on industry, schools and hospitals. Millions of pounds have been invested in trying to beat it, but so far it has defied the best efforts of scientists. So when a new flu cure is mooted, it is guaranteed column inches.

With an eagle eye on its share price, Glaxo Wellcome has seized the opportunity presented by reports of a pre-Christmas epidemic to hype a new potential flu drug, one which is scarcely out of the laboratory.

The company says that a poor flu season last year hampered the development of the compound, known as GG167. There were too few cases to try it on. But this year, the company says confidently, the surge in cases of flu and flu-like illness now being reported has presented the ideal conditions for large-scale clinical trials. It predicts approval from regulatory authorities for a nasal spray or inhalation as early as 1997, with sales in its first year in excess of pounds 200m.

Such confidence in a drug which has been tested in just a handful of human volunteers so far - very few of whom actually had flu - has alarmed drug industry observers and leading scientists. They see a trend developing in which British pharmaceutical companies, once a model of caution, are making claims for compounds still in the preliminary stages of development.

The reasons are clear. The executives of British companies are desperate to retain their dominant position in the global market place, and time is running out. They need new products to replace their top sellers - drugs like Zantac, an anti-ulcer treatment and the best selling drug in the world, but one which loses its patent exclusivity in less than two years' time. Drug companies believe that the "hyping" strategy persuades shareholders to keep the faith. British Biotech, a relatively new company, last week saw its share price shoot up by more than 50 per cent after releasing results of a new anti-cancer drug. The drug, marimastat, had been tested in just 94 patients for one month only.

GG167 is certainly a novel approach to combating the influenza virus. The computer-designed drug does not kill it, but appears to stop the virus in its tracks. It blocks an enzyme, neuraminidase, which is essential for the release of the virus from infected human cells in the nasal passage and the airways of the lungs. The theory is that the immune system will then "mop up" these infected cells and so prevent their spread through the rest of the body.

Peter Collins, a scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, is credited with discovering GG167 in the mid-Eighties. However, the compound belongs to a much older group of chemicals developed in the Sixties by Peter Palese, a chemist in Vienna. He recognised their potential as anti- viral drugs, but Collins, an X-ray crystallographer, was the one to "fine- tune" the original molecule until it was specific for strains A and B of the flu virus - the most common strains in circulation - sticking to them at a particular point and inhibiting neuraminidase.

Palese's molecule was boat-shaped and fitted a groove in the viral structure neatly enough, according to Professor John Oxford, a leading virologist at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. "What Collins did was add a little oar shape to the molecule so that it fitted even better and had greater efficacy against the virus," he explains.

In the test tube and in laboratory animals, GG167 has proved successful, but in humans there is little in the way of conclusive evidence. Other similar neuraminidase inhibitors are being developed in labs around the world, and there is fierce competition to be first on the market. However, many virologists believe that a simpler back-to-basics approach, now being applied to the Aids virus, is the only way forward against flu: better drugs to treat the symptoms are a more cost-effective option than millions of pounds being invested in potential cures.

But other doctors point to an existing drug as the most exciting prospect for treating influenza A, the most dangerous strain of the virus and the one associated with most fatalities. The drug is amantadine, made by Ciba Geigy and sold as Symmetrel. It is better known as a treatment for Parkinson's disease but its value in flu is widely recognised by those in the know. It is, however, underused because few GPs have heard of it and the Department of Health is not keen to promote it. Flu vaccination for those at particular risk stretches the NHS budget enough as it is. The department has, according to some doctors, overemphasised its side-effects, described as an excess of "jittery" feelings.

A related drug, rimantadine, would reduce these minor side-effects even further, it is claimed. It is rarely used in the West but doctors in the former Soviet Union have regularly prescribed it and have a wide base of patient experience. A few Western drug companies have expressed interest but refuse to comment on its potential as a flu treatment just yet. It is, however, a more realistic option than a hi-tech, state-of-the-art compound which, so far, has proved itself effective at relieving flu symptoms only in laboratory rats and mice.

News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
people

Tennis star is set to marry his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Marketing Specialist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading Renewable Energy compa...

Ashdown Group: Data Warehouse & Business Intelligence Co-ordinator

£35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Required skills include SQL querying, SSRS, u...

Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, PHP, HTML, JavaScript, CSS

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: C#.Net Developer - C#, ASP.Net, HTML...

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?