Scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, the Emory Institute for Drug Development and the Paul-Ehrlich Institute in Germany developed the drug and tested it in animals infected with a virus closely related to one that causes the measles.
Virus levels were significantly reduced when infected animals received the drug by mouth. The drug also prevented the animals from dying of the disease, researchers said.
This drug, one that can be produced cost-effectively, stockpiled and administered by mouth, could boost eradication efforts by rapidly suppressing the spread of the virus during local outbreaks, they said.
Despite major progress in controlling the measles worldwide, annual measles deaths have remained constant at around 150,000 since 2007, and there has been a resurgence of the virus in European countries where it had been considered controlled.
The reasons for this are the highly infectious nature of the virus and insufficient vaccine coverage, which in the developed world is mostly due to parents opting not to vaccinate their children.
Dr Richard Plemper, from the Institute for Biomedical Sciences at Georgia State University, and colleagues developed the drug, termed ERDRP-0519, which blocks the replication of the pathogen.
In collaboration with Dr Veronika von Messling from the Paul-Ehrlich-Institute, the researchers tested the drug by turning to a virus very closely related to measles virus, the canine distemper virus, which causes a highly lethal infection in ferrets.
All of the animals treated with ERDRP-0519 survived infection with the distemper virus, remained disease free and developed robust immunity against the virus.
Plemper said the drug could be used to treat friends, family and other social contacts of a person infected with measles virus, who have not developed symptoms yet but are at risk of having caught the disease.
The researchers emphasise the drug is not intended as a substitute for vaccination, but as an additional weapon in a concerted effort to eliminate the measles.
While the drug is very encouraging thus far, additional research is needed before it could be considered for use in humans, researchers said.
The study was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.