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A New Approach to Fighting Viruses Shows Promising Early Results

Brazil Faces New Health Epidemic As Mosquito-Borne Zika Virus Spreads RapidlyBrazil Faces New Health Epidemic As Mosquito-Borne Zika Virus Spreads Rapidly
Brazil is tackling a Zika virus epidemic.Photograph by Mario Tama Getty Images

A team including researchers from Singapore, Japan, and IBM have reported promising early tests of a new strategy for combating a broad spectrum of viruses, which they say may help overcome some shortcomings of vaccines. The researchers created a single molecule that was effective at protecting test cells from viruses including dengue, influenza, Ebola, and herpes.

Vaccines work by stimulating the body to produce antibodies to a virus, but their development must be tailored to individual viruses, and creating each vaccine can be lengthy and expensive. Worse, vaccines can actually trigger resistance in viruses, which evolve rapidly.

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The new approach, reported in the journal Macromolecules, seeks to disrupt infection and replication processes common to all viruses, rather than creating single-target antibody resistance. As explored in more depth at Popular Science, the team engineered a large molecule that traps viruses, disrupts viral replication by changing its acidity level (pH), and for good measure, uses a sugar called mannose to block the virus from infecting cells.

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Because this approach is based on traits shared by all viruses, rather than on individual genetics, the team says it should prevent the development of resistant viral strains.

The potential impact of such a broad-spectrum solution has been highlighted in recent months by the spread of the Zika virus, which is having dire effects as health researchers race to develop a vaccine. A treatment effective against many viruses would allow for much faster response to developing viral epidemics.

The reported test results were not on human subjects, though, and there’s still a long process before this technology could be turned into an actual medical treatment.