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Sweetgum tree could help lessen shortage of bird flu drug

The sweetgum tree grows widely throughout the country and is known for its mace-like green fruit, which are sometimes called "gumballs." Now, this spiny fruit may become an important source of a chemical needed to make a lifesaving drug against bird flu ?a drug that is currently in short supply worldwide, researchers say.

Chemists have found that the seeds of the sweetgum fruit contain significant amounts of shikimic acid, the starting material used to produce the main antiviral agent in a much-heralded drug for fighting bird flu. Their findings, which could help increase the global supply of the drug, were described today at the 231st national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

Shikimic acid is used to make a generic drug called oseltamivir ?best known commercially as Tamiflu® ?which is used to fight many types of flu viruses. Some health experts believe that this and similar antiviral drugs could help save lives by slowing the spread of the virus in the absence of a bird flu vaccine, which is still in development.

The drug, which blocks the replication of the flu virus, is being stockpiled worldwide to slow or stop a possible bird flu pandemic that some experts predict could kill millions ?if the virus mutates into a form that can spread from person to person. The virus, a strain known as H5N1, primarily afflicts birds at present but has been known to kill a small but growing number of humans who have had close contact with infected birds.

There is a skyrocketing demand for Tamiflu, but some experts fear there won’t be enough of the drug to treat everyone if a worldwide pandemic occurs. The supply problem resides in the drug’s source: The shikimic acid used to make it is obtained almost exclusively from the Chinese star anise, a fruit that is found mainly in China and whose supply has dwindled due to high demand for the flu drug. Although shikimic acid is found in many plants, star anise
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Source:American Chemical Society


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