Could illegal drug meth hold key to flu cure?

Behind the Headlines

Monday November 12 2012

There is currently no cure for flu

The Daily Mail reports that scientists have found a “bizarre cure” for flu: the illegal drug methamphetamine (meth).

Responsibly, the Mail makes it clear that the scientists, “did not recommend taking the drug in its current available form” but hope it could have the potential to provide a cure in the future.

This news story is based on research which looked at the effect of the drug on flu virus in lung cells in the laboratory. Researchers thought that the drug might make cells more susceptible to infection, but surprisingly they found that cells exposed to meth were less susceptible to the flu virus. Also, the virus did not replicate itself as well in the meth-exposed cells.

Meth (also known as crystal meth) is a powerful and illegal nervous system stimulant which, aside from its many associated health risks, is known to be extremely addictive.

It is highly unlikely that meth will ever be used as a treatment for flu. But this research provides new clues to chemicals that affect flu virus replication, and possibly similar, but safer, substances could be studied as potential flu treatments.

As with many news stories of this kind, a great deal of further research is required before any practical, real-life treatments could result.

 

What is methamphetamine?

Methamphetamine, meth, or crystal meth, is a powerful stimulant.

 

Aside from the strong risk of addiction, health risks associated with meth use include:

  • psychosis
  • brain damage
  • stroke
  • lung and kidney damage

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from the National Health Research Institutes (which also funded the study) and other research centres in Taiwan.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed open access medical journal PLOS One.

The Mail seems to cover this story largely because of its “bizarre” nature, however, the paper does make it clear that the study was looking at cells in the laboratory and that the doctors are not suggesting that people start taking meth in its current form to treat the flu.

It does though, refer to meth in the title as a “bizarre cure”, when it is an over-simplification of the findings to suggest that a cure for the flu has been found. It is not unheard of for researchers to look at the effects of illegal drugs or the chemicals they contain in treating illnesses, for example there has been research on the effects of cannabis and the chemicals in cannabis in multiple sclerosis.

Due to the wide range of adverse side-effects associated with methamphetamine, it is highly unlikely that any health service would use it to treat flu in its current form.

 

What kind of research was this?

This was laboratory research (in vitro) which looked at the effect of the illegal drug methamphetamine on the ability of the flu virus to infect human lung cells.

The researchers report that some evidence suggests that the drug may make people more susceptible to infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and possibly other infections such as hepatitis C. This is thought to bedue, in part, to methamphetamine being able to suppress the immune system, making people more vulnerable to some types of infection.

They said that no previous studies have looked at the effect of the drug on the ability of the flu virus to replicate within human cells, so they set out to do this.

 

What did the research involve?

The researchers grew human lung cells in the laboratory, and treated them with different concentrations of meth to see what concentration would not kill the cells and could be used in their subsequent experiments.

The researchers then infected meth-exposed and non-meth-exposed cells with the flu virus, and looked at how susceptible the cells were to infection by the virus and how well the virus could replicate itself in the cells.

 

What were the basic results?

The researchers found that concentrations of meth that might be found in the blood of meth abusers did not kill the lung cells in the laboratory, but higher concentrations did start to kill the cells.

They found that exposure to meth reduced the susceptibility of the lung cells to influenza virus infection. Once the cells were infected, the influenza virus was also less able to make copies of itself (replicate) in the meth-exposed cells at 30 to 48 hours after infection, but not in the first 24 hours after infection.

 

How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers concluded that meth might not increase the risk of influenza A virus infection and transmission among meth abusers. If anything, meth may protect against flu infection.

They say that future studies should examine whether other compounds, which are structurally similar to methamphetamine, could be used as anti-influenza treatments.

 

Conclusion

This study found that the illegal drug meth reduces the ability of the flu virus to infect and replicate in lung cells in the laboratory.

It is not possible to say whether this means that people misusing meth will be less susceptible to the flu. Many other factors may come into play when people (rather than just their lung cells) are exposed to the flu virus, such as their general health and state of their immune system.

While the authors suggest that similar chemicals may have promise as anti-flu treatments, much more research would be needed to develop such treatments and test them in the lab and in animals before any such tests could be carried out in humans.

It is much too early to herald meth or any related chemicals as a “cure” for flu.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on twitter.

Links to the headlines

It's one of the more bizarre cures, to say the least: Scientists discover the illegal drug meth could fight the flu. Daily Mail, November 9 2012 

Links to the science

Chen Y, Wu K, Chen C. Methamphetamine Reduces Human Influenza A Virus Replication. PLOS One. Published online November 6 2012

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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