World authority and pioneer inventor of Relenza, the drug at the frontline of global government protection against Swine Flu symptoms, has told Crikey that talks of a pandemic are premature. But Professor Mark von Itzstein has told Crikey that he’s currently working on an anti-viral agent to shut down viruses like Swine Flu.

The professor, whose original Monash University research team designed, made and tested leading anti-viral drug Relenza before it came on the market in 1998, and who is now head of Medicinal Chemistry at the Griffith University campus on the Gold Coast, is now working on a next generation drug he hopes can overcome the virulent strains like Swine and Bird Flu that he describes as “shape shifters.”

Not only is Dr. von Itzstein currently working on next generation cheaper alternatives to Relenza and Tamiflu; but he is looking to develop a universal drug to prevent viruses capable of pandemics.

“We know going into the 21st century that coming up with anti-infective drugs whether it’s fighting viruses, bacteria or parasites presents humanity with a major issue,” he told Crikey.

“My work is very interested in viruses that rapidly change or morph into something new and to my mind I believe these are the most dangerous. Viruses that can actually shape shift and avoid the immune system are particularly dangerous.”

“We are hopeful we can move forward to go into the next phase of development in the next few years, but with a lot of hurdles still to cross because I’ve been there before. But we have seen in our experiments and the profiling of these compounds that we are developing, good signs of being effective anti-viral agents in dealing with these strains including Swine Flu. The end game is to have a universal drug that can tackle all of these viruses,” Dr. von Itzstein told Crikey.

But despite the obvious alarm over Swine Flu which originated out of Mexico and has since spread to other countries as far away as Europe and New Zealand, the professor says it’s still some distance from becoming a pandemic.

According to the UK’s Health Protection Agency yesterday, the two drugs Tamiflu and Relenza can relieve symptoms for infected people and also reduce the transmission of the virus from person to person, with the government estimating it has enough stock piles of the drug to treat about 50% of the population in the event of a pandemic.

“I know we have a touch under 9 million doses combined in Australia,” the professor told Crikey today.

“In terms of any influenza virus both drugs are extremely effective, which is why the Australian drug is so important because along with Tamiflu they are the first line of defence. I think there’s a lot of sensitivity at the moment, particularly to any air-borne virus like this and the fact that it’s moved to other continents from Mexico, which has put us all on alert — but I don’t think we should over-react.”

“We have a path to follow and the government has in place appropriate preparedness plans which fortunately we put in place when H5N1 (Bird Flu) came along and obviously panicked the community and rightly so,” says von Itzstein. “What the impact of this will be we don’t know, and there are stages where we now have to see how it all progresses. But it does seem aggressive and clearly it’s transportable and contagious, and is also taking the lives of very young and healthy people like 20-year-olds. Normally you would just expect them to get sick for a couple of weeks and recover…”

“It becomes a pandemic when you get a level of incidence where it is spread right through a majority of continents, I believe on the World Health Organisation site it is now stepped up to level 4. That means you have a sustained level of human to human transmission — levels 5 and 6 are where you would see a pandemic occurring, but we are still a long way from that.”

“If you look at people infected in the US they have come from Mexico, but the question now is have they been transmitted the infection in that country — has it spread in the US? If these people contaminate other people and it spreads further, then you are up to level 5,” says von Itzstein. “But I haven’t yet heard anything to say that kind of spread has taken place outside of the people who were originally contaminated.”

As for his work on an anti-viral agent, “I think we are maybe three years away from advancing to pre-clinical testing, where animal trials would take typically one to two years. So we’re perhaps maybe six years away if we’re successful from having something available to everyone.”

Peter Fray

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