Study Highlights the Use of Viruses as Tools for Material Science and Drug Delivery

What would you think if your doctor wanted to inject you with a virus as a part of your medical treatment? Though still a long way off, that is just one of the implications of a recent breakthrough by Temple University chemistry professor Trevor Douglas and Montana State University plant pathology professor Mark Young. The results of their research appear in the May 14 issue of Nature.

Douglas and Young have utilized a "gating mechanism" in the protein coats of some simple viruses which allows them to admit and expel organic and inorganic material. Through these "reversible structural transitions" technicians will be able to remove the genetic component of a virus (the DNA or RNA that allows the virus to reproduce) and use the remaining protein coat as a container and delivery system for other substances.

Douglas and Young explain that "In their native state, viruses are protein assemblies which act as host containers for nucleic acid storage and transport. We have subverted this natural function." Their work is, to a large extent, a conceptual breakthrough. To see (and prove) that viruses are substances that can be taken apart, purged of genetic material, reassembled and used as couriers of selected substances is a significant challenge to conventional thinking.

Hope for significant medical advances come from the fact that the two researchers were able to load an organic substance similar to heparin--which is routinely used to treat coronary thrombosis--into cowpea chlorotic mottle virus. Because this phenomenon of gating is possible for a large number of viruses of different shapes and sizes, there is no reason to think that options for drug delivery are limited to any particular class of medicines.

The simple protein coats that Douglas and Young work with can also be "easily and routinely modified by design." This means that the loaded virus can

Contact: T. Christopher Bond
(215) 204-7476
Temple University

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