Researchers have discovered the world's first 'virological penicillin' in a molecule found in honeysuckle.
The sweet-smelling honeysuckle plant (Lonicera japonica) has been used for generations in traditional Chinese medicine to treat influenza infections. While it's been known to block the replication of the influenza virus, the mechanism and active components in the plant have remained a mystery until now.
In a new study published in Cell Research, scientists from the Nanjing University in China studied the honeysuckle plant and identified a plant microRNA called MIR2911. MicroRNAs are small molecules found in plants and animals that play an important role in influencing the pathways responsible for many diseases. In clinical trials, this molecule was able to suppress deadly influenza A viruses such as swine flu (H1N1) and bird flu (H5N1).
The scientists delivered boiled honeysuckle to the plasma and lung tissue of mice infected with the H1N1 infection. Results showed that MIR2911 quickly bound itself to the messenger RNA - the molecule containing the genetic information - of the two genes responsible for viral replication. This binding mechanism blocked the replication process, and eventually the virus was destroyed.
The trials were conducted with both synthetic and naturally occurring honeysuckle, and both proved to be equally effective.
Findings also revealed that the MIR2911 molecule suppresses the replication of influenza viruses H5N1 and Avain inluenza A (H7N9). This suggests that it has a broad-spectrum antiviral activity, and could be a potential cure for the Ebola virus. While the results are promising, the team needs to observe the molecule in human subjects before advising it as a therapeutic cure for influenza A viruses.
It was previously thought that boiling honeysuckle would degrade the beneficial molecules, but MIR2911 proved to retain its properties after boiling. This suggests that honeysuckle tea is an effective way to take the plant.
The team hopes that MIR2911 can be used as a 'virological penicillin' to treat deadly viruses for which there is currently no known natural cure.
"We suggest that as the first natural product to directly target influenza A viruses, MIR2911 is the 'virological penicillin' that serves as a novel therapeutic and preventive agent against not only influenza A, but potentially also other types of viruses," conclude the authors in the study.