Molecule designed to destroy viruses

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A computer model of the human poliovirus, where the capsid – a protein coat – encloses the virus’s genetic information. The protruding reddish brown proteins are the receptors, which enable the virus to recognise and bind to a host cell.
Credit: Laguna Design/Getty Images

Broad-spectrum antivirals may be one step closer to reality thanks to research showing the potency of of a new multifunctional macromolecule.

Viral diseases are amongst the most serious and difficult to treat of all the pathogens. Their ability to rapidly mutate makes it almost impossible to design drugs to target a specific feature.

To tackle this issue, researchers at IBM Research and Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering, Nanotechnology (IBN) produced a revolutionary polymer capable of fighting a wide variety of viruses using an innovative multi-pronged approach.

Viruses are the shapeshifters of the microbiological world, with a remarkable ability to mutate parts of their genome to generate resistance against treatments.

This means the immune systems’ receptors cannot read the “flags” on the surface of pathogens, effectively rendering them blind.

The researchers solution was to take a more generalist approach, setting out to design an antiviral against a whole range of diseases.

The resulting large molecule has different modes of action to hinder the virus’ ability to develop resistance.

It works in three distinct ways.

First, it can use electrostatic charges to attract the virus, binding it closely and preventing it from reaching its target.

Second, the macromolecule contains mannose, a type of sugar used by viruses to attach to the receptors of immune cells. But the researchers found if they coated the macromolecule in mannose it could out-compete a virus for the available mannose receptors.

In the third approach, the macromolecule neutralises the acidity within cells, preventing pH-dependent viruses such as dengue, herpes simplex virus (HSV) and Ebola replicating. The molecule has worked as planned against a range of pathogens, including those causing HSV, dengue, influenza, Marburg, enterovirus, Ebola and chikungunya.

“We have created an anti-viral macromolecule that can tackle wily viruses by blocking the virus from infecting the cells, regardless of mutations,” says co-author Yi Yan Yang. “It is not toxic to healthy cells and is safe for use”.

Given then many of these diseases still do not have treatment options, it is hoped that this new macromolecule may provide new approaches to clearing the viral infection.

Lead researcher James Hedrick, said he and his team “are excited about the possibilities that this novel approach represents, and are looking to collaborate with universities and other organizations to identify new applications.”

The work was published in Macromolecules.

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