The flu virus has so far defeated the best efforts of the immune system and medical science in preventing or fighting the infection.
The virus manages to stay one step ahead through its ability to regularly modify two key proteins on its surface coat. Antibodies produced against one particular strain are useless against another, which has altered surface proteins.
Using computer-aided biochemical techniques, scientists at Monash University, Victoria, Australia, have designed molecules specifically to target one of these proteins, known as sialidase.
Sialidase is thought to help the virus penetrate the lining of the respiratory tract, and plays a role in the release of new viruses from infected cells. When tested in laboratory cell cultures and in a range of animals, the molecules had a potent anti-viral effect, according to the journal Nature.
The researchers, lead by Mark Von Itzstein, said that the two compounds 'may be useful leads for the development of novel anti-influenza drugs'. In an accompanying article, Garry Taylor, from the University of Bath, said that the results would 'excite and encourage' those involved in drug design.