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Shark-Derived Drug May Treat Viruses

Squalamine Has New Antiviral Properties, Researchers Say
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Sept. 19, 2011 -- A unique compound originally isolated from sharks could prove to be a promising treatment for hepatitis B and C and other viral diseases, researchers say.

Known as squalamine, the drug has not yet been tested as an antiviral agent in humans, but it has been given to hundreds of people enrolled in clinical trials designed to test its usefulness for other conditions.

Researchers say they hope to begin human trials to test the compound’s antiviral activity within the next year.

Sharks Don’t Get Viruses

Georgetown University Medical Center researcher Michael Zasloff, MD, PhD, and colleagues first discovered squalamine almost two decades ago while studying sharks in hopes of finding new, naturally occurring antibiotic agents.

He tells WebMD that he chose sharks because they have very primitive, but highly effective, immune systems.

His more recent research led to the discovery that the shark-derived compound works in a completely new way that could make it an effective antiviral drug, he says.

“Sharks ought to be riddled with viruses because they have such primitive immune systems, but they aren’t,” Zasloff says. “Other vertebrates are vulnerable to viruses, but there are no known shark viruses.”

To test the theory that squalamine had antiviral properties, he sent samples of the compound -- now synthesized in the lab without shark tissue -- to viral researchers across the country.

Laboratory and animal studies confirmed that it had “unambiguous” activity against viruses that attack cells in the liver and blood, including those that cause hepatitis B, C, and D, yellow fever, and dengue fever, Zasloff says.

The study appears online in the journal PNAS Early Edition.

“This agent works in a completely novel way,” he says. “There is no known compound that does what squalamine is capable of doing.”

Squalamine Changes Cell’s Electrical Charge

Instead of targeting the virus directly, squalamine helps protect the cells that line the liver and blood vessels from infection, Zasloff says.

It does this by changing the electrical balance within the cells, eliminating certain positively charged proteins that are bound to the negatively charged surface of the cells’ inner linings.

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