When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, he transformed the way we treat bacterial infections. Antibiotics have saved millions of lives in the last century. But they can cause unwanted side effects. And they don't do any good against viruses. As you may know, viruses cause everything from the flu to Ebola. If only there were a "virological penicillin" that could help us fight these diseases.
It turns out, there just might be. And it's been right under our noses for years.
Have you ever stopped to smell a honeysuckle vine? If so, you may have been breathing in the solution to the influenza A viruses (IAV), which include Spanish flu and avian flu. The Chinese have been using honeysuckle in traditional medicine for years, often turning it into tea. Researchers at Nanjing University in China decided to see if there was any scientific benefit to this strategy.
According to their study, published in Cell Research, there is. They reported, "The results show that honeysuckle decoction has a broad-spectrum anti-viral activity." Here's why.
Honeysuckle contains a molecule called MIR2911. The molecule survives being mashed up and boiled. We call that making tea — scientists call it decoction. When mice drank this tea, the molecule moved into their plasma and lung tissue.
From there, it fought IAV by targeting two genes that flu viruses need to replicate, PB2 and NS1. It didn't matter whether the MIR2911 molecule came from an actual honeysuckle vine or if it was made synthetically. Either way, it kept the mice safe from H1N1, or swine flu.
While these results haven't been replicated in humans yet, they're still very exciting. Scientists have never found any natural product that can fight a virus directly. Since viruses mutate, it's very hard to develop a lasting effective treatment. But because MIR2911 fights so many different aspects of virus replication, it might work even if the viruses do mutate.
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The team even found that MIR2911 "directly targets the Ebola virus." This finding may be critical in the development of anti-Ebola drugs.
For now, we don't know for sure whether honeysuckle tea will be effective for humans. But it's definitely doing good things for mice. I expect we will hear about human studies soon. I can't wait to hear the results. Until then, feel free to drink some honeysuckle tea with your breakfast. Even if it doesn't cure the flu, it still tastes good! And I suspect its ability to fight viruses could help you stay healthy this winter.
Your voice of reason in Women's Health,
Dr. Janet Zand
Cell Research, 13 October 2014.