Renee Juhans Headquarters, Washington, DC (Phone: 202/358-1712) Steve Roy Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville

, AL (Phone: 256/544-6535) RELEASE: 99-39

March 11, 1999

SPACE RESEARCH MAY ACCELERATE DEVELOPMENT OF FLU FIGHTING DRUG A NASA-industry team has used the results of Space Shuttle experiments to develop a new flu drug that may decrease the length and severity of the illness and even prevent the development of symptoms in those exposed to the virus. "With NASA support for space and ground-based research, we successfully mapped the molecular structure of the influenza virus," said Dr. Larry DeLucas, director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "The mapping exposed the virus' weaknesses in greater detail and our industrial partners were able to develop a drug that exploits those weaknesses." Dr. Ming Luo, a professor at the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography, and an international team of crystallographers developed the "molecular map" of the flu virus from space grown protein crystals. The map was used to design drugs that block the undesirable characteristics of the virus. "It's like trying to build a tiny key that fits into a tiny lock," said DeLucas. "Except this lock is living, breathing, flexing, changing temperatures and in constant motion." Pure, precisely ordered protein crystals of large size and uniformity are in high demand by drug developers. When grown on the ground, protein crystals often cannot be grown as large or as well-ordered as researchers desire, obscuring vital pathways to a better understanding of disease. The "frequent flyers" of the space program, protein crystal growth experiments are aboard nearly every Space Shuttle mission, helping researchers unlock the secrets of how to stop infection and disease on Earth.

Influenza protein crystals flown aboard the Space Shuttle in May 1996 were used to confirm earlier studies and to determine the effectiveness of potential drugs on the flu virus protein. "By analyzing space-grown crystals of the influenza virus, we were able to get a clearer picture of the virus' structure," said DeLucas. "NASA's support for this research project probably saved considerable time needed to develop this new drug." The flu virus infects 20 to 40 million people in the United States each year, even with vaccines, and thousands are at risk of dying from its complications. The new drug, part of a new class of medicines called neuraminidase inhibitors, was developed in a partnership between NASA and the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography. The new compound was synthesized by BioCryst Pharmaceuticals in Birmingham, AL, and is under development by The R.W. Johnson Pharmaceutical Research Institute, Raritan, NJ, a Johnson & Johnson Company. Sponsored by the Space Product Development Office, Microgravity Research Program, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL, DeLucas' organization is chartered as a NASA Commercial Space Center -- encouraging private industry to benefit from space technology. Neuraminidase inhibitors are designed to block an active site of influenza neuraminidase, an enzyme associated with the spread of the flu. Unlike vaccines, which have to be taken before exposure and are only specific to certain strains of the influenza virus, a neuraminidase inhibitor may be taken as either treatment or prevention, and is effective against a wide variety of influenza strains. The R.W. Johnson Pharmaceutical Research Institute is responsible for all phases of testing the drug in humans. Before becoming available in the United States, the drug must undergo this testing and be approved by the Food and Drug Administration. - end Note to Editors: Interviews are available with NASA, industry and university researchers by contacting Steve Roy at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center Media Relations Office at (256) 544-6535.

More information about NASA's Microgravity Research Program experiments can be found at: