Associate Professor Ross Vlahos from RMIT University (ARC Future Fellow) and head of the Oxidant and Inflammation Biology Group within the Chronic Infectious and Inflammatory Diseases program at RMIT Stavros Selemidis both gained international attention at the end of last year when their medical research into respiratory disease received $2.5 million in funding from the annual National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) project grant round.
Their work also attracted considerable interest at the NADPH Oxidase GORDON conference in the US as it has provided high-impact developments in the areas of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, viral infections and cancer.
With the $2.5 million NHMRC grant and with the auspices of the Australian Reasearch Council (ARC), they focused on developing novel therapies to treat respiratory virus-induced lung disease in otherwise healthy people and in people with underlying chronic lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). With 13,500 Australians being hospitalised and over 3000 deaths among those aged over 50 on a yearly basis let alone more than 5 million cases of infection with up to 10 per cent resulting in death on a global level, a new treatment strategy was long overdue.
In a major study undertaken by RMIT University, the duo has led an international collaboration that could potentially unlock new, effective treatment options for viral diseases, including the flu and common cold.
The results of their research were published on Wednesday in acclaimed scientific and medical journal Nature Communications.
Senior RMIT author Dr Selemidis and Dr Eunice To (first author), collaborated with Professor Doug Brooks from the University of South Australia; Professor John O’Leary from Trinity College Dublin; Monash University’s Professor Christopher Porter, and other scientists and clinicians to investigate how viruses cause disease in humans.
The researchers discovered that a 1.5 billion-year-old cell biological process found in plants, fungi and mammals enhances viral disease in mice and is also highly likely in humans. They identified a protein, Nox2 oxidase, that is activated by viruses, including influenza, rhinovirus (the common cold), dengue and HIV.
“Current treatment strategies are limited as they specifically target circulating viruses and have either unknown or very little effect against new viruses that enter the human population,” said Dr Selemidis.
“We have identified a protein of the immune system that contributes to the disease caused by flu viruses irrespective of their strain. We also developed a novel drug delivery system to target this protein, which drastically alleviated the burden of viral disease.”
Once activated, Nox2 oxidase suppresses the body’s key antiviral reaction and its ability to fight and clear the viral infection, which in turn results in a stronger or more virulent disease in mice. The study also investigated a new prototype drug to treat these debilitating viral diseases. The researchers found that the Nox2 oxidase protein activated by the viruses is located in a cell compartment called endosomes. They carefully modified a chemical that inhibits or restrains the activity of Nox2 oxidase. Their customised drug was found to be very effective at suppressing disease caused by influenza infection.
“This work identifies a treatment strategy that has the potential to alleviate the symptoms caused by some of the most devastating viruses worldwide, including the flu,” explains Dr To.
Professor Calum Drummond, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation and Vice President at RMIT, also added that the project held immense promise.
“The unique partnership between Dr Selemidis’ laboratory at the School of Health and Biomedical Sciences at RMIT and his collaborators continues. Dr Selemidis’ laboratory and his collaborators are pursuing further research to aid development of novel drugs for further trials and this is showing great potential,” he said.