Physicians have been worried that there will not be enough star anise available to create the Tamiflu drug needed if there is a bird flu epidemic. Now chemists have discovered an alternative medicine, from the sweetgum tree, which is widely grown throughout the US.

The spiny, mace-like fruit of the sweetgum tree could become an important source for the chemical needed to produce Tamiflu, which is now in short supply. This drug, which blocks the replication of the flu virus, is being stockpiled worldwide to slow or stop a possible avian 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.

Chemist Dr. Thomas Poon has discovered that the seeds of the sweetgum fruit contain significant amounts of shikimic acid, which is used to produce the main antiviral agent in 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.

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