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UM SOM Researchers Identify Protein That Could Reduce Death and Improve Symptoms in Influenza and Other Infectious Diseases

October 05, 2017 | David Kohn

Daniel J. Prantner, PhD

New Research Identifies Potential Protective Agent Against Flu

A new study by researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine has identified an innovative strategy for treating influenza, and perhaps other infectious diseases as well. Scientists showed that a small protein called retrocyclin-101 (RC-101) could potentially improve the symptoms and mortality associated with the flu and possibly other types of infectious illness as well.

The protein is unique in that it not only targets the flu virus itself, but also the harmful inflammation the virus triggers in the host.

While the effect of RC-101 has been studied as a flu treatment in cells before, it has never been studied in animals. The research appears in the most recent issue of the Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

“Every year, thousands of people across the country die from the flu or its complications—despite widespread use of annual influenza vaccines,” said the study’s lead author, Daniel J. Prantner, PhD, a research associate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM). “We think that this protein could lead to medicines that could be a powerful tool in the battle against this disease, and against inflammation in general.”

For this study, Dr. Prantner and his colleagues studied the effects of RC-101 on human cells, and in an animal model of flu, using mice. The researchers studied human immune cells, and found that RC-101 had two positive effects. First, it blocked the flu virus from infecting the cells; second it blocked the runway inflammation that is behind most symptoms of influenza infection, such as fever, pain, lethargy, and trouble breathing. This double action is unique, Dr. Prantner says.

In the animal model, the researchers infected two groups of mice with a dose of influenza that is typically lethal. They gave one of these groups RC-101 two days after infection for a total of five days, and gave the other group a placebo. The mice that were treated with RC-101 exhibited less severe symptoms of the flu and also decreased rates of death. Among the control group, 90 percent of the mice died; among the group that was given RC-101, only 20 percent died.

Although RC-101 does not exist in humans, it does exist in some other animals, including orangutans, and provides powerful antiviral protection. It appears to have been lost over the course of recent primate evolution. Chimpanzees and gorillas, for example, do not have it.

One of the study’s principal investigators, Alfredo Garzino-Demo, PhD, an associate professor in the UM SOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology and at the UM SOM Institute of Human Virology, is planning research to see whether the protein can be effective against Dengue, Zika, and other viral infections that can cause damage via inflammation.

Other authors on the paper include the other principal investigator, Stefanie Vogel, PhD, a professor in the UM SOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Kari Ann Shirey, PhD, assistant professor in the UM SOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Wendy Lai, Laboratory Research Supervisor in the in the UM SOM Department of Microbiology and Immunology; Wuyuan Lu, PhD, professor in the UM SOM Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, and Co-Director Of the Division Of Basic Science; and Alexander M. Cole, PhD, a professor in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine.

“This finding uncovers a potential new treatment to battle flu and other viruses do their damage in humans,” said UM SOM Dean E. Albert Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, who is also the vice president for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland, and the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor. “This research underscores the close link between basic science and the clinic. The cooperation between different researchers on this project is impressive, and illustrates the essential value of breaking out of silos.”

About the University of Maryland School of Medicine

Commemorating its 210th Anniversary, the University of Maryland School of Medicine was chartered in 1807 as the first public medical school in the United States. It continues today as one of the fastest growing, top-tier biomedical research enterprises in the world -- with 43 academic departments, centers, institutes, and programs; and a faculty of more than 3,000 physicians, scientists, and allied health professionals, including members of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, and a distinguished recipient of the Albert E. Lasker Award in Medical Research. With an operating budget of more than $1 billion, the School of Medicine works closely in partnership with the University of Maryland Medical Center and Medical System to provide research-intensive, academic and clinically-based care for more than 1.2 million patients each year. The School has over 2,500 students, residents, and fellows, and nearly $450 million in extramural funding, with more than half of its academic departments ranked in the top 20 among all public medical schools in the nation in research funding. As one of the seven professional schools that make up the University of Maryland, Baltimore campus, the School of Medicine has nearly 7,000 total employees. The combined School and Medical System (“University of Maryland Medicine”) has a total budget of $5 billion and an economic impact of nearly $15 billion on the state and local community. The School of Medicine faculty, which ranks as the 8th-highest public medical school in research productivity, is an innovator in translational medicine with 600 active patents and 24 start-up companies. The School works locally, nationally, and globally, with research and treatment facilities in 36 countries around the world. Visit

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David Kohn
Director of Medicine and Science Communications
University of Maryland School of Medicine
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