The challenges of antiviral treatments

https://knowablemagazine.org/article/health-disease/2021/challenges-antiviral-treatments

Antibiotics abound, but virus-fighting drugs are harder to come by, and Covid-19 amply shows how much we need them. Fortunately, scientists are getting better at making and finding them.

Physician Claudette Poole doesn’t take long to rattle off a list of antiviral medications she prescribes to her patients. “There really aren’t very many,” says Poole, a pediatric infectious disease physician at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

And for people with Covid-19, there’s just one approved for use: remdesivir, which doesn’t seem to save lives, but speeds recovery in those who do get well. Clearly, more antivirals would be nice to have — so why don’t we have them? Inventing them, it turns out, is not so easy.

Viruses rely on human cell machinery to copy themselves, so antiviral designers face a challenge: how to stop the virus without damaging the inner workings of healthy cells too. While scientists have found several solutions to the problem, the antiviral pharmacopeia still lags behind the plethora of antibiotics available to treat bacterial infections.But as researchers build up their knowledge of viral life cycles, antivirals may be poised to catch up. Scientists are also planning for future pandemics, in the hopes of having a better selection of antivirals to try the next time around.

Here’s where antivirals stand today, and how the list might be growing.

How do antivirals work?

An antiviral drug can block any of the steps a virus uses to copy itself. To do its dirty work, a virus must attach to a host cell, sneak inside and trick that cell into copying viral genes and crafting viral proteins; after that, the newly made viruses must escape to infect new targets. At each step, viral genes or proteins need to interact with various host molecules, and each of these interactions offers an opportunity for antiviral drugs. The drugs often mimic those host molecules and act as decoys to interfere with the viral life cycle and reduce its spread.

A common approach is to interfere with the copying of viral genes into DNA or RNA to form new viral genomes. Viruses frequently have their own versions of proteins, called polymerases, for this task. The polymerases add individual building blocks called nucleotides, one by one, to the new genome as it’s being built. [ … ]

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