Although science has yet to decide if viruses are living organisms or not, it’s clear that they can neither reproduce nor survive long without a host cell. Viruses, therefore, must hijack a cell by infecting it and then use the cell as a factory to replicate itself. When too many viral copies cause the cell to burst, the newly released copies look for their own cell to infect and repeat the process.
Influenza A is one such virus that requires sialic acid to infect a new cell. Scientists have developed nanoparticles coated in sialic acid that act as a decoy to lure the Influenza A virus to its doom.
Influenza A Nano-Trap
Before infecting a cell, the Influenza A virus must initially latch onto the cellular wall.
The virus uses sialic acid to form a receptor on the outside of the cell wall. Without the receptor, the virus fails to impregnate the cell, and if the virus fails to replicate itself, it fails to survive.
Rather than exposing patients to small doses of the virus to create antibodies, trying to physically block a virus or find a flaw in its genetic code, scientists have attempted to use the virus’s own access code as a trap.
To test this their hypothesis, researchers experimented on immune-compromised mice. They created spherical nanoparticles coated in sialic acid that lure the Influenza A virus into a trap that holds it until it self-destructs.
Such an approach could potentially be applied the treatment of all viruses with characteristics similar to Influenza A, such as HIV, Malaria, and the Zika Virus.
Researchers from similar the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS) at Rensselaer in collaboration with several South Korean institutions participated in the research, publishing the results in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
“Instead of blocking the virus,” explains research team leader Robert Linhardt, “we mimicked its target – it’s a completely novel approach. It is effective with influenza, and we have reason to believe it will function with many other viruses.”
“This novel nano-therapy could be retooled to attack different targets and could be used to attack diseases that currently have no cure.”
He continued optimistically by saying that the technique could be “therapeutic in cases where the vaccine is not an option, such as exposure to an unanticipated strain, or with immune-compromised patients.”
Antiviral Medicine not as Effective as Antibiotics
Aside from the biological differences between virus and bacteria, the discovery of antibiotics changed the world relatively quickly partially due to the fact that antibiotics arguably function indiscriminately.
Different strains of different viruses are much more variable, can mutate quickly and become more resistant faster. As such, antiviral therapies are highly specialized where they exist.
Because vaccines and antidotes comprise the bulk of treatments for viral conditions, and because each virus requires a unique vaccine or antidote, there is currently no antivirus equivalent for the blanket method, top-down way that antibiotics function.
Yet, some pathogens, for example, Hepatitis C and AIDS make developing consistent, blanket treatments difficult.
Although it does not cover all viruses, this innovative nano-therapy could be retooled to attack different targets and could be used to attack diseases that currently have no cure.
The influenza virus is no small feat, either. After all, one of the deadliest global pandemics in modern history was provoked by influenza. The 1918 Spanish Flu is estimated to have killed tens of millions of people worldwide – more people than World War I.