JUN 12, 2017 5:41 PM PDT

Designer Molecule can Stop the Flu

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Scientists are taking a new approach in the fight against the flu. They have engineered a protein that acts to stop the virus from infecting cells, and while a lot more research is yet to be done, the new protein has been promising in tests done with cells in culture and animal models. The work, outlined in the video below, has been published in Nature Biotechnology.

Influenza is a public health threat, causing serious illness in anywhere from three to five million people in one year, an infection that is deadly to some 250,000 to 500,000 people, usually those with weak immune systems. 

Vaccines are one way people can help prevent flu infection, but they are not effective against all strains and they sometimes don’t trigger enough of a response in some recipients. Drugs that act to fight the flu have traditionally been directed at proteins in the viral coat. Neuraminidase is one, but viruses have already started to build resistance to neuraminidase drugs. Another target on scientists’ radar is hemagglutinin (HA). 

HA, a protein shaped like a mushroom, functions to aid the cell infection process. It begins by attaching its cap to three sugar molecules on the targeted cell individually. After binding, HA uses its stem like a hook to pull the virus close to the cell, after which it fuses and ejects the viral load into the cell.

A designer protein (brown and orange) fits snugly on top of the influenza virus's hemagglutinin protein (green), which helps the virus latch onto and infect cells. / Credit: Eva-Maria Strauch

David Baker, a computational biologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, led researchers in 2011 who synthesized a protein that binds to the stem portion of HA and could halt viral infection in cell culture models. The stem is often shielded by protein that puts it out the reach of drugs, however.

Baker’s team has now engineered proteins that target the exposed cap of HA instead.

The investigators tested copies of the protein that had been team immobilized nitrocellulose, a membrane that is like a kind of paper. After exposing it to various viral strains, it showed that it could attach to the virus without releasing it. “We call it flu glue, because it doesn’t let go,” Baker explained.

After trying out the protein in culture, the protein could prevent infection in the cells. It also stopped illness in mice when provided one day before or after exposure to virus.

The scientists note that this new protein is unlikely to become a medicine. One issue, explained Baker, is that the protein will not attach to flu strains that tend to sicken people. As such, any future drug be made up of a cocktail of proteins that attach to the HA cap or ones which act together with proteins that bind to the stem. Additionally, designer proteins have to be properly evaluated for safety, Crowe said; they are quite different from natural antibodies that halt HA. “The further you get away from a natural antibody, the less you can predict what will happen,” Crowe said.

This designer protein could one day be used in cheap diagnostic tests for the flu, like a pregnancy test, Baker said. It could also help doctors select the best medicine for flu treatment.

 

Sources: Science, Nature Biotechnology

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
SEP 15, 2020
Cardiology
Dopamine Could Cause Heart Arrhythmia After Heart Failure
SEP 15, 2020
Dopamine Could Cause Heart Arrhythmia After Heart Failure
Everyone knows that friend with a tattoo of a molecule of dopamine. Usually associated with the pleasure response, it is ...
SEP 14, 2020
Health & Medicine
Direct Amplification: Rapid, Extraction-Free RT-qPCR Results
SEP 14, 2020
Direct Amplification: Rapid, Extraction-Free RT-qPCR Results
As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic continues to rage across the United States and around the globe, the demand for COVID-19 test ...
OCT 09, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
Proteins Have an Orientation in Plant Cells
OCT 09, 2020
Proteins Have an Orientation in Plant Cells
Just like animals, plants are made of cells that are full of proteins. The proteins in plant cells are often only found ...
OCT 15, 2020
Neuroscience
Neurometabolism: A bold, new frontier
OCT 15, 2020
Neurometabolism: A bold, new frontier
Billions of neurons communicate with each other through trillions of synapses to create a functioning, unique system we ...
OCT 07, 2020
Neuroscience
Biocompatible Gel Restores Sciatic Nerve Function in Rats
OCT 07, 2020
Biocompatible Gel Restores Sciatic Nerve Function in Rats
Video: Explains poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid), a hydrogel biopolymer that is a similar concept to the new hydrogel built ...
NOV 09, 2020
Cell & Molecular Biology
The Science Behind Wine Fraud Prevention
NOV 09, 2020
The Science Behind Wine Fraud Prevention
Wine comes in a wide range of flavors and prices. Wine fraud, in which cheaply produced wine is passed off as the expens ...
Loading Comments...