Influenza, a wily and adaptable virus, comes in waves every year and kills an average of 36,000 people in the United States each year. Most deaths are attributable to the viral effects on the body, especially pneumonia caused by mounting inflammation.

But a synthesized protein lost in recent primate evolution could be restored to give humanity a fighting chance against the most virulent infectious strains – and other diseases, reports a team from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the Journal of Leukocyte Biology.

The RC-101 protein does double duty in combating the virus, they report. The protein prevents the flu virus from infecting the human cells, buy disrupting a gene pathway in immune cells known as TLR4. But it also stops the deadly runaway inflammation, they report.

“It is quite possible that the effect of RC-101 in this system is both antiviral and anti-inflammatory,” they conclude. “Together these data suggest that RC0-101 and other (defensins) are strong candidates for future human clinical trials in the search for novel viral therapeutics.”

The protein was synthesized from an RC peptide, using a process of Boc chemistry, and purified through high-performance liquid chromatography. The ultimate product resembled a protein used as antiviral protection in some animals. (But the protein has been lost over most recent steps of evolution, since chimpanzees and gorillas and humans do not have it, while orangutans do).

The protein was tested in mice. Two groups of mice were given influenza nasally. But while one group received only a placebo, a second group were administered RC-101 two days after first exposure. A full 90 percent of the non-treated mice died in the days after infection, while only 20 percent of the mice given the RC-101 died.

“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,” said Daniel Prantner, the lead author, from Maryland’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, in a school statement.

Next up for the research: testing the protein against the effects of other viruses, like Dengue and Zika. Stefanie Vogel, another of the Maryland researchers on the paper, told Laboratory Equipment that the next steps of the research could be taken in a matter of months - if the team can get the funding to do so.

Vogel added that the team had previously shown other inhibitors like Eritoran had blocked TLR4, which had also protected aginst influenza infections. (Vogel and another team member has a patent on Eritoran). Additionally, one of the co-authors, Alfredo Garzino-Demo, had previously found that RC-101 had similar anti-viral effects against the Dengue virus.

"While viruses such as influenza cause a lot of damage themselves when people get infected, it is often the immune response that leads to severe tissue destruction trying to eradicate the infection," added John Wherry, deputy edfitor of the journal. "These new findings using RC-101 may teach us how to efficiently allow the immune response clears a virus, while preventing the most damaging parts of the inflammatory response."