As the Zika virus continues to spread there has been renewed attention on the issue of how to treat viruses–such as Zika, Ebola and Dengue–that not only spread rapidly, but that are prone to mutate and become resistant to medication. Now, IBM and Singapore's Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology claim to be close to an extraordinary cure; a macromolecule that can kill wildly different viruses, and even wipe out herpes and influenza.
Current treatments for viral illness tend to attack the DNA or RNA of the virus itself; the problem is that these characteristics vary from virus to virus, and are prone to mutate, thus rendering virus-specific, once-successful treatments ineffective. What IBM and there researcher partners have done is look at the static properties universal to all viruses.
As a result, the researchers focused on the glycoproteins that form a coating around all viruses. No matter what the virus, this sugary coating has electric charges (some positive, some negative), that helps the virus stick to healthy cells in the body and spread infection, but outside chemicals can also stick to these glycoproteins.
Dr. James Hedrick, lead researcher for advanced organic materials at IBM research explains:
It's kind of like honey. It's kind of sticky. We can now competitively go after this cell faster than the virus can go after your immune cell. And once we block those receptors, we prevent infection.
In order to go after the cells via glycoproteins, Hendrick and his colleagues have developed what is known as a macromolecule–a large molecule made of many smaller components. And this macromolecule can attack the virus cell in multiple ways.
By simply attaching itself to a cell, the macromolecule can either protect a healthy cell from joining with a virus, or stop a virus from joining with a healthy cell, rapidly stalling the spread of an illness and preventing the virus from mutating. Additionally, a sugar called mannose, contained within the macromolecule will attract healthy immune cells towards the virus and speed up the fight against infection.
By 2018, IBM hopes that these macromolecules can be deployed through antiviral wipes or soaps–but instead of killing 99.9 percent of household germs, the hygeine products will protect us from Ebola, Zika and more. Further down the line, IBM aims to produce a vaccine that will kill all viruses.
All images CC by 2.0 NIH on Flickr