In hunt for broad-spectrum antivirals, area researcher turns to sharks

    An area researcher says a synthetic version of a compound found in sharks may have broad implications for preventing and treating viral infections.

    Broad-spectrum antibiotics have been prescribed for decades, but scientists say developing good drugs that can treat more than one virus at a time has been elusive.

    In a new paper published online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Merion-based Dr. Michael Zasloff shows that synthetic squalamine, originally found in sharks, is effective in treating human pathogens, including yellow fever and Hepatitis B, in lab animals or tissue cultures. Zasloff first identified squalamine in 1993 while at the University of Pennsylvania, and the compound is now being studied in relation to cancer and eye disease.

    Zasloff said the compound shows how sharks fight infection differently than humans.

    “What the shark has decided is, the best way to do it is to change the cell,” said Zasloff, a professor at Georgetown. For example, to fight a viral infection of the liver, “We’re not going to attack the virus, we’re just going to change the liver, and since we know that viruses are simple things, they’ve evolved to attack a specific tissue, well, some viruses are just not going to have the brains to know what to do.”

    Unaffiliated MIT scientist Todd Rider said this is one of about half a dozen agents described in peer-reviewed papers purporting to have broad antiviral properties, which he said are the next wave of fighting viral infection.

    “For many, many years, there really haven’t been good broad-spectrum anti-virals, there have been very few anti-viral drugs, and those that did exist would generally just block one specific virus,” Rider said, “so when something new comes along you have to develop a completely new drug or a completely new vaccine.”

    He estimated it would be a decade until any of the newly described compounds would be made into drugs and make it to market.

    He called Zasloff’s research promising, but said toxic effects of the treatment to human cells should be monitored.

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