Honeysuckle has been used for more than a century within traditional Chinese medicine, often consumed in the form of tea. Researchers have now identified a molecule within the plant that directly targets influenza A viruses, a family of viruses that includes Spanish flu and avian flu.

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Influenza is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by viruses.

The study was conducted by a team from Nanjing University, China, and is published in the journal Cell Research.

The team believes the findings could be important in offering a novel therapeutic strategy for combating rapidly evolving influenza A viruses (IAV).

They previously found that certain molecules in foods can regulate the physiology of the person that has consumed them “by regulating host ‘target’ genes.”

Exponents of traditional Chinese medicine have already been drinking the sweet-smelling honeysuckle as a form of treatment for IAV, and now the research has been able to provide evidence of the medicinal merits of the plant. The team writes, “the results show that honeysuckle decoction has a broad-spectrum anti-viral activity.”

The molecule in question is MIR2911. The researchers found that the molecule was present in honeysuckle even after it had been mashed and boiled in water, in a process known as decoction. Mice were given the honeysuckle to drink in the form of a soup, delivering the molecule into their plasma and lung tissue.

The team was then able to demonstrate that MIR2911 represses IAV by targeting two specific genes that have been identified as being essential for influenza viral replication: PB2 and NS1.

In addition, the researchers found that both synthetic MIR2911 and the natural form of the molecule in honeysuckle decoction were able to protect animals effectively from H1N1 infection, an IAV also referred to as Spanish flu or swine flu.

They believe that MIR2911 could be used as the “virological penicillin” to treat various viruses, much in the same way that Fleming’s discovery of penicillin led to the development of antibiotics targeting bacterial infections and saving millions of lives.

So far, the researchers have only observed these results in mice. Future studies will therefore need to assess the role of the molecule in human subjects before clinical judgement can be passed on its role in future treatments for IAV.

This is the first time that a natural product has been found to directly target a virus. The authors draw attention to the fact that forms of IAV mutate, making forms of treatment that were once effective no longer so. As such, the evolution of IAV drives a need for new methods of treating these viruses.

MIR2911 had a broad-spectrum anti-IAV effect as it was efficient at suppressing the replication of the H5N1 and H7N9 influenza viruses. Broad-spectrum antivirals – treatments that act on multiple viruses – are crucial in fighting viruses that emerge and then re-emerge later in different forms.

“With this in mind, plant MIR2911 is an ideal reagent for suppressing IAV infection,” write the authors, “and it is fully expected that MIR2911, as well as MIR2911-enriched honeysuckle decoction, will be widely used for [the treatment of IAV infections].”

MIR2911 “also directly targets the Ebola virus,” writes the team. Currently, there is no universally recognized treatment for the disease that is pandemic in Western Africa. Apart from experimental drugs, intensive supportive care is the only form of treatment available to patients with the virus at present.

Medical News Today recently reported on the study of a synthetic molecule that imitates an important section of Ebola virus. The molecule promises to speed up the discovery of universal anti-Ebola drugs.