Viruses have eluded our best efforts to fight them off. They mutate much more quickly than bacteria, and most anti-viral drugs that do keep symptoms at bay need to be administered for the rest of a patient’s life.
But now, researchers may have discovered a workaround: a macromolecule that’s swift and nimble enough to tackle virtually any virus that crosses its path. The scientists, from both IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, recently published their findings in the journal Macromolecules.
The team concentrated their efforts on the similarities between viruses. Here’s Claire Maldarelli, writing for Popular Science:
For their study, the researchers ignored the viruses’ RNA and DNA, which could be key areas to target, but because they change from virus to virus and also mutate, it’s very difficult to target them successfully.
Instead, the researchers focused on glycoproteins, which sit on the outside of all viruses and attach to cells in the body, allowing the viruses to do their dirty work by infecting cells and making us sick. Using that knowledge, the researchers created a macromolecule, which is basically one giant molecule made of smaller subunits. This macromolecule has key factors that are crucial in fighting viruses. First, it’s able to attract viruses towards itself using electrostatic charges. Once the virus is close, the macromolecule attaches to the virus and makes the virus unable to attach to healthy cells. Then it neutralizes the virus’ acidity levels, which makes it less able to replicate.
The researchers found that the molecules did in fact latch onto the a number of viruses’ glycoproteins (including those of the Ebola and dengue viruses) and reduced the number of viruses in their lab experiments. A sugar in the molecules was also able to bind to healthy immune cells that, in turn, destroyed the virus more efficiently.
If the technique plays out as expected in further experiments, this lone molecule could someday be responsible for ridding humankind of the worst viral infections—from Ebola, to Zika, to the flu. That will take a while, though, and some scientists caution that universal antivirals may be dangerous , anyway—they could upset our immune systems in ways we don’t currently anticipate. Still, this macromolecule is a proof of concept that powerful antiviral drugs are not completely out of reach.
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