Treatments for a whole range of viruses could be closer thanks to a discovery by scientists at Trinity College Dublin.

The researchers found that a molecule central to the growth of cells, known as STAT3, plays a vital role in preventing infection through the immune system.

The study, led by Assistant Professor in Immunology at Trinity College Dublin Dr Nigel Stevenson, involved an examination of an immune molecule called interferon produced by cells that are being infected by a virus in order to deter the invading pathogen.

This process triggers the release of a series of molecules in our cells, known as a signalling pathway, which ordinarily leads to the cell being able to fight off the infection.

But when this chain of events does not happen as it should do, then serious illness can be the result.

The TCD-based scientists found a range of ways in which viruses manage to overcome the immune system and stop the natural response to interferon, with some even managing to directly target the interferon signalling pathway.

Using this new understanding, Dr Stevenson and his colleagues then tested individual molecules, before establishing that STAT3 plays an essential role as an anti-viral, so much so that without it cells cannot defeat viruses like flu.

"Of course a major goal of our ongoing work is to find solutions to the real-world problems faced by the thousands of people who cannot clear certain viruses after they have been infected," said Dr Stevenson in a statement.

"This discovery opens the door to new therapeutic options, which, we hope, will be able to help people restore their natural immunity against a host of problematic viruses."

The research was published in the journal Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences CMLS.