AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Most drugs have side effects, but sometimes it's actually good news. For example, what if the side effects of a cheap and common drug would actually help you fight off the flu? This is not as far-fetched as it might seem, as NPR science correspondent Richard Harris explains.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Back about 10 years ago, Dr. David Fedson had a disturbing thought. He was working in the vaccine industry in France, and he started to wonder what would happen if all of a sudden the world was gripped with a flu pandemic.
DAVID FEDSON: No company had a strategy for dealing with the pandemic. And also, when you just looked at the arithmetic of how quickly they would need literally billions of doses of vaccine which they couldn't make in time, it became very clear that you simply can't get there from here.
HARRIS: Antiviral medications like Tamiflu are expensive and far from perfect, so Fedson decided what the world needed was a cheap and simple drug that wouldn't cure the flu but would help people weather the symptoms and survive. He focused in on drugs that would tamp down inflammation, which can turn an infection deadly.
FEDSON: So that's the general idea that I've been working on over the course of this last decade.
HARRIS: And that led him to think about the world's most widely prescribed drugs, the statins. And to Dr. Jeffrey Jacobson, who studies the unusual properties of statins at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
JEFFREY JACOBSON: It's been long recognized that these drugs do a whole lot more than just lower serum cholesterol levels.
HARRIS: They also reduce inflammation. Jacobson has been studying them to see if they can help people with severe lung infections and maybe the flu as well.
JACOBSON: These drugs are readily available. They're pretty darn cheap, all things considered. And they're relatively safe. So it's sort of a win-win-win if we can actually demonstrate that these have protective and beneficial effects.
HARRIS: Studies to date suggest that they have some benefit at least. One study found that people who were already taking statins when the flu struck did somewhat better than patients who weren't on these drugs. Dr. Maureen Chase says that doesn't necessarily mean the drug is beneficial.
MAUREEN CHASE: It might mean that you see your doctor more regularly, and they put you on a statin medication as a preventative measure for high cholesterol as opposed to actually having a cause and effect type of relationship.
HARRIS: So five years ago, Chase and her colleagues at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston decided to put statins to the test. They had been randomly giving these drugs or a placebo to patients who show up in the emergency room with the flu. They're asking a simple question.
CHASE: If you are not currently taking a statin medication and we give you a statin medication, do you have better outcomes than those who don't take a statin medication?
HARRIS: Chase has finally studied enough people to answer that question in her study, and she's now analyzing her results. She is of course hopeful.
CHASE: If they were effective, this would be a great additional therapy to what we already have to treat influenza and could be used in a worldwide fashion. It could have fantastic public health applications.
HARRIS: Other scientists wonder whether something else might also do the trick. Michel Cousineau is president of a French company called Signia Therapeutics. It grows human lung cells in the lab and uses them to identify old or failed drugs that might unexpectedly work against respiratory diseases. By Skype, he says the company has identified two old high blood pressure drugs, and they're now being tested in French hospitals against the flu.
MICHEL COUSINEAU: And what we're trying to do is now reposition them into a new marketplace, which is the market of antiviral, which is our initial focus.
HARRIS: So how often does a drug that is tested for one purpose end up being effective for something completely different?
COUSINEAU: Well, more and more. In the last 10 years, it's been an accepted concept that most molecule may have six to 12 biological targets.
HARRIS: That means six to 12 possible ways to be useful as a drug, so Cousineau is hoping cast-off drugs will be a goldmine for other diseases far beyond the flu. Richard Harris, NPR News.
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