Effective drugs for Hepatitis C, flu in the offing: Nobel laureate

Taipei, Some effective medicines for the treatment of all strains of Hepatitis C and influenza are expected to reach the market in the next few years, while research on the development of a single drug against several other types of viral infections is underway, Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Roger Kornberg said in Taipei recently.

Kornberg, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for revealing how genetic information is activated by an enzyme named RNA polymerases to make proteins, told CNA on April 27 about the potential medical applications of his latest discoveries.

He said a non-toxic molecule for Hepatitis C proved extraordinarily effective in phase 1 clinical trials in the United States and is now in phase 2 clinical trials.

The molecule will be superior to any available treatment, including the very expensive medicine made by American drugmaker Gilead Sciences for Hepatitis C, the only viral infection that has a cure, Kornberg said.

He said he and his team have also developed another molecule, which just entered phase 1 clinical trials, as a potential drug for the treatment of influenza, an infectious disease that has no effective treatment to date.

It will take perhaps two or three years for the drug to eventually reach the market, he said.

For the first time, it will "enable someone sick with influenza to take a pill that will kill the disease," said Kornberg, professor of structural biology at Stanford University's School of Medicine.

Devising the molecules from a fatal mushroom toxin called amanitin was an example of scientists "taking advantage of what nature has evolved over a very long period" and then diverting it to their own purposes, Kornberg said.

"If you eat the mushroom, you will certainly die and there is no treatment," he said. "But at the same time, we can make a small change to amanitin so it will not affect a person but will kill the virus."

Applying molecules to prevent unwanted activities, in this case the multiplication of viruses harmful to the human body, was made possible through the study of RNA polymerases, Kornberg said.

Through understanding of the "transcription" process by which RNA polymerases read genetic information, "we learn how it is done, how it achieves the necessary accuracy, and how to interfere with the process," he said.

That information "will be helpful for curing or preventing the occurrence of every disease," Kornberg said.

He said the research by him and his team also found an extraordinary similarity in the structure in all human viruses, which means one drug could be effective against many viral diseases.

"We hope we can make a 'penicillin' for viruses," Kornberg said. "Penicillin works against many different bacteria. We would like to make a molecule for viruses, also against many viruses."

He said the knowledge people have gained about human biology is still very limited -- "far less than 1 percent."

"We now know almost all of the components of the machinery for transcription, but we are far from understanding how it works," he said.

Kornberg said he would encourage young scientists interested in solving difficult or practical problems to study nature.

"Pursuing a curiosity about nature is seeking to understand all of the lives and behaviors of every activity in chemical terms," he said. "There is nothing more interesting in the world than nature in its entirety."

Kornberg was visiting Taiwan at the invitation of the Tang Prize Foundation in his capacity as a member of the foundation's International Advisory Board.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel