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Antiviral drugs are a class of medication used specifically for treating viral infections.

Like antibiotics for bacteria, specific antivirals are used for specific viruses. Unlike antibiotics, antiviral drugs do not destroy their target pathogen; instead they inhibit their development.

Antiviral drugs are one class of antimicrobials, a larger group which also includes antibiotic, antifungal and antiparasitic drugs. They are relatively harmless to the host, and therefore can be used to treat infections. They should be distinguished from viricides, which are not medication but destroy virus particles outside the body.

Most of the antivirals now available are designed to help deal with HIV, herpes viruses (best known for causing cold sores and genital herpes, but actually causing a wide range of diseases), the hepatitis B and C viruses, which can cause liver cancer, and influenza A and B viruses. Researchers are working to extend the range of antivirals to other families of pathogens.

Designing safe and effective antiviral drugs is difficult, because viruses use the host's cells to replicate. This makes it difficult to find targets for the drug that would interfere with the virus without also harming the host organism's cells.

The emergence of antivirals is the product of a greatly expanded knowledge of the genetic and molecular function of organisms, allowing biomedical researchers to understand the structure and function of viruses, major advances in the techniques for finding new drugs, and the intense pressure placed on the medical profession to deal with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of the deadly acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic.

History

Through the mid- to late-20th century, medical science and practice included an array of effective tools, ranging from antiseptics to vaccines and antibiotics, but no drugs to treat viral infections. While vaccines were effective in preventing many viral diseases, they could not help once a viral infection set in. Prior to the development of antivirals, when someone contracted a virus, there was little that could be done other than treating the symptoms and waiting for the disease to run its course.

The first experimental antivirals were developed in the 1960s, mostly to deal with herpes viruses, and were found using traditional trial-and-error drug discovery methods. Researchers grew cultures of cells and infected them with the target virus. They then introduced chemicals into the cultures they thought were likely to inhibit viral activity, and observed whether the level of virus in the cultures rose or fell. Chemicals that seemed to have an effect were selected for closer study.

This was a very time-consuming, hit-or-miss procedure, and in the absence of a good knowledge of how the target virus worked, it was not efficient in discovering antivirals that were effective and had few side effects. It was not until the 1980s, when the full genetic sequences of viruses began to be unraveled, that researchers began to learn how viruses worked in detail, and exactly what chemicals were needed to thwart their reproductive cycle. Dozens of antiviral treatments are now available, and medical research is rapidly exploiting new knowledge and technology to develop more.
[edit] Virus life cycle

Viruses consist of a genome and sometimes a few enzymes stored in a capsule made of protein (called a capsid), and sometimes covered with a lipid layer (sometimes called an 'envelope'). Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, so they propagate by subjugating a host cell to produce copies of themselves, thus producing the next generation.

Researchers working on such "rational drug design" strategies for developing antivirals have tried to attack viruses at every stage of their life cycles. Some species of mushrooms have been found to contain multiple antiviral chemicals with similar synergistic effects[3]. Viral life cycles vary in their precise details depending on the species of virus, but they all share a general pattern:

* Attachment to a host cell.
* Release of viral genes and possibly enzymes into the host cell.
* Replication of viral components using host-cell machinery.
* Assembly of viral components into complete viral particles.
* Release of viral particles to infect new host cells.

 
 

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