Texas researcher behind new flu drug approved by FDA

State & Regional

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A new drug, recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration that takes a new approach to tackling the influenza virus, has ties to Texas.

The drug, Xofluza, targets the virus in its early stages, blocking it from spreading. It works best during the first 48 hours after the patient contracts the virus.

Thanks to research done by Dr. Robert Krug in the 1970s, and an update a few years ago, the drug was approved by the federal government. Krug did his research at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He has been a professor of molecular biology at the University of Texas at Austin for nearly two decades.

“40 years ago I discovered a unique pathway that the influenza virus uses to begin the process of making its messenger, its viral RNAs (ribonucleic acids) and viral proteins,” Dr. Krug said. The process involves what is known as “cap-snatching.”

“It’s stealing a piece of a host cell messenger RNA to use as a primer to initiate the chains of viral messenger RNA,” Krug said. “That was a big surprise. In fact, it was hard to publish the first paper. Nobody believed it.”

“It’s very gratifying to know that basic research we’re doing eventually has a great impact on human health,” Dr. Krug said. The drug is expected to hit the market mid November.

FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said the new drug provides an “important, additional treatment option” to combating the flu.

“This is the first new antiviral flu treatment with a novel mechanism of action approved by the FDA in nearly 20 years. With thousands of people getting the flu every year, and many people becoming seriously ill, having safe and effective treatment alternatives is critical,” Dr. Gottlieb said in a statement.

Common flu treatment dug Tamiflu, and others like it, attack the virus after it has already spread. Those treatments work to trap and contain the virus. Tamiflu treatment involves multiple doses on multiple days., usually accompanied by nausea and other side effects. Xofluza involves a one time dose, with minimal side effects.

Physicians in Texas said adding Xofluza to the treatment arsenal would aid in patient recovery.

“If you do happen to be one of those unfortunate people to develop the flu in spite of having had the vaccine, this gives you an option to take a simple or a treatment that will speed up your recovery from the flu and help prevent some of the other complications that can occur with a bad case of the flu,” Dr. Albert Gros, Chief medical officer for St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, said.

Dr. Krug said at some point, doctors may consider prescribing both Xofluza and Tamiflu to battle different aspects of the virus, after further development.

“Xofluza should act finely on its own, but at some point there maybe optimum ways of doing both,” he said.

Dr. Krug said the delay in development since his research was published four decades ago stems from the discovery a few years ago of a critical crystal structure, thanks to modern technology, and more tools to develop drugs.

“That’s what really makes things go faster at the present time compared to the way it was in 1979,” he explained.

This development comes at a poignant time for Dr. Krug. He plans to hang up his lab coat soon. His lab is in the process of being cleared out.

“I’m retiring,” he said. “It’s a great way to retire with this development.”

He said his basic research is what led to this drug, which is poised to help millions of people, and he hopes funding continues to come in for other scientists.

“I can’t emphasize how important it is for basic research funded by NIH (National Institutes of Health) to keep going so that other people who make such discoveries that will eventually help human health,” Dr. Krug said. He also said further testing needs to be done to make sure the drug works for young children, seniors, and people with underlying diseases. He stated people should still get the influenza vaccine to reduce the risk of catching the flu.

Dr. Krug mentioned when he retires he will not stop his research. He is collaborating with another researcher on a way to diagnose the flu more quickly. 

“The dream would be that you would have some sort of thing like the pregnancy test which you could have in a drugstore or some other place and you just take a sample from your mouth or your nose and it lights up and says you have the virus, and then you walk over to the pharmacist and he gives you the pill,” Dr. Krug explained.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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