Thing I study series – Tamiflu

So before I hop into my PhD/fitness series, which I’ve promised y’all for AGES ( it’s in the works for this month!), I wanted to start another blog series because the timing is just too darn relevant.

Today, I’m going to share with you a scicomm post I’ve written about the flu. It’s part of a science communication blog series I’m starting called “Things I study/Things I don’t study”. As you’ve read in this post and heard in this podcast, I am a glycobiologist, which means I study complex carbohydrates. I’ve explained what that means in those previous posts, and there’s a good article written by my friend Stephanie Halmo (she’s in my same PhD program)  about Glycobiology on our local online science blog here, so check those out for reference!

Because I study complex carbohydrates or chains of sugar molecules, also called glycans, I am often mistaken for a nutritionist, food expert, or diabetes expert of some sorts. Understandable misunderstanding, but I wanted to make a series which highlights the kind of research glycobiologists do (some of which involve things you eat or even diabetes, but most of which don’t). For fun, I’ll include some scicomm pieces on interesting research that really has nothing to do with glycobiology – so broadly “Things I study/things I don’t study”! (Note here: “I” means glycobiologists in general, I personally don’t study ALL of these topics!)  Without any further ado:

Things I study – The flu because this year’s flu sucks and it’s only just the beginning apparently:

Not exactly a spoonful of sugar…

You wake up shivering, your head is pounding, you’re super congested, and when you go to cough, you notice the tell-tale symptom – the full-body ache. You have the flu. Now let’s add to this dreadful scenario: maybe you own a small business, and your other employee is on vacation this week or, even worse, what if YOU’RE on vacation this week!? What do you do?! Most people are very aware of the annual flu vaccine, which can help prevent getting sick in the first place. However, many people think that once you have the flu, the only way to treat it is with Netflix-binging (aka rest), fluids and some chicken noodle soup. It turns out, there are a few drugs on the market that can help you feel better more quickly. If you can get to a doctor early enough, then you may have the opportunity to lessen the symptoms and even shorten the length of your illness to get you back to work or back to fun sooner!

What are these drugs and how exactly do they work? They’re antiviral drugs known commercially as Tamiflu and Relenza. They belong to a special class of drugs that inhibit specific enzymes, or proteins, on the flu particle surface from chewing up certain complex sugars on the host’s (aka YOU) cells. To understand this mechanism better, you’ll need a little background knowledge on the study of complex carbohydrates, or glycobiology. You probably hear the words sugars and carbohydrates and think that this involves studying food, and I know we’ve already discussed how chicken noodle soup can be a great comfort during times of illness. However, what I’m referring to is the layer of complex sugars that cover the outside of each and every cell in your body! These sugars are also known as glycans. They’re attached to proteins and fats on your cell’s surface and stick out like the fuzzy layer of yellow fluff on a tennis ball. These glycans are important for things like cell-to-cell communication, cellular recognition, and cell attachment. The flu virus particle has proteins on it that bind to glycans on our cells’ surface. It uses these attachment points to invade the host cell. The flu virus then hijacks your cell’s internal resources to make copies of itself! The copies of the flu virus then need to escape the host cell in order to spread the virus to other cells in our body. However, because they also have the same proteins that stick to the glycans on our cells’ surfaces, the virus gets stuck to the surface of the host cell that they’re emerging from. Think about it like velcro stuck to the tennis ball in the previous analogy! To solve this problem, the virus uses a special enzyme, called a neuraminidase, that chews up the glycan that’s keeping the flu virus attached. This is where the antiviral drugs like Tamiflu or Relenza can step in! Like I said, they’re inhibitors, more specifically, they’re neuraminidase inhibitors! They prevent the flu virus from chewing up the host cell’s glycan that the virus is attached to, which means that flu particle can’t escape and move on to infect other cells! Not only that, because the flu virus is stuck in one place, this also means your body’s immune cells can sweep in and clear all the trapped flu particles!   

Scientific researchers studied the flu virus, how it invades our cells, and spreads to other cells to figure out the best way to stop or slow down the spread of the virus. This is how they developed the inhibitors in the antiviral drugs, Tamiflu and Relenza. These drugs aren’t perfect though; they, unfortunately, won’t magically make you feel 100% better. They still rely pretty heavily on your own immune system to help clear the virus, and they work best if taken very early on in your illness, before the virus particles have been given a chance to spread too much. However, scientific evidence has shown that when taken correctly, these drugs can help lessen your flu symptoms and even shorten the duration of your illness by a day or two. So the next time you wake up with those tell-tale aches and chills, and you simply don’t have the time to binge Netflix shows and eat chicken noodle soup, now you know that there could be some other options available for you just a doctor’s visit away!

So yea, some glycobiologist study how to treat the flu! Glycobiology can play a significant role in developing better flu vaccines also, but that’s a story for another “Things I study” post! Hope you enjoyed it! Let me know in the comments if this series is something that intrigues you or if there are any topics that you’d like me to cover!



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Michelle Dookwah

I'm currently a graduate student working on my PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Georgia with hopes of pursuing a career in science communications! Come share in my musings, struggles and triumphs as work on my PhD and try to enjoy life while doing so!

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