Mason professor’s research may hold key to slowing down HIV, Ebola, herpes and perhaps cancer

Yuntao Wu's research could lead to new treatments for HIV, Ebola, herpes and other viruses. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Yuntao Wu and his team within George Mason University’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases could be on the verge of developing a new class of broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that could eventually slow the spread of dreaded diseases such as HIV, Ebola and herpes.

Wu and his colleagues have designed and developed a series of small molecules that have shown the ability to prevent viruses from replicating and spreading throughout the human body. 

The molecule, which has been synthesized into an experimental drug called R10015, not only specifically blocks HIV, Ebola, herpes and other viruses from infecting healthy cells, but also denies viruses from releasing to infect other cells, if cells do get infected. The drug also prevents viruses from cell-to-cell transmission that further spreads the maladies, including sexual transmission.

The drug is still in the early testing stages with use limited thus far to mice, but larger test subjects such as monkeys could be next, with human trials coming last. The drug has shown few side effects on mice when used exclusively on a short-term basis, Wu said. 

A research paper detailing Wu’s work and that of his colleagues appeared online in the Journal of Virology and will additionally be highlighted in the next edition of the journal’s upcoming “Spotlight” section.

“The drug does not kill the virus; rather, it takes away a cellular resource that the virus has to rely upon to complete its life cycle and replicate,” Wu said. “If the virus cannot complete its life cycle, it will be cleared by the host’s cells. The advantage of targeting a host protein to block HIV is that it is hard for the virus to generate drug-resistance.”

The continued development of the R10015 drug could have an even more pronounced impact in the fight against Ebola, a fast-moving virus that is often fatal. The new drug could not only temper an outbreak of the disease as a whole, but slow its spread within those already infected long enough for the human immune system to develop the antibodies needed to fight the disease.

“If you can slow down the virus for a week, people will have a better chance to be alive,” Wu said.

A virologist who has been working on HIV research since 1999, Wu is confident that a cure for Ebola will be found within the next 10 to 20 years. Inhibiting its spread is just another step in that direction, he said.