Viruses have long been a frustrating enemy of humankind.
Unlike bacterial infections that we learned to treat with medicines like penicillin, there is no corollary to antibiotics. The closest thing we have to “antiviruses” would be vaccinations.
Historically we have treated viral infections and outbreaks like influenza and polio with a series of immunizations.
In the case of polio young children are given an oral dose of live attenuated virus. Basically, we give kids a very low dose of very weakened polio. Our immune systems see this threat and are more than strong enough to overcome the virus.
By doing so our immune systems gain an understanding of how to fight that virus. That turns into an immune memory that can then be used in the body is exposed to polio, kicking into high gear before the virus can take hold.
In the case of influenza, we guess at what strain of flu will go around and give people vaccines, or shots, of dead virus. This allows our immune system to get prepared as it responds to the dead virus.
But what about other viruses?
It takes a long time, a lot of research, and huge amounts of resources to develop and test a vaccine.
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Scientists are turning to a new method to give viruses a deadly embrace – hairy nanoparticles.
Nanoparticles, tiny particles ranging from 1-100 nanometers in size, have been used to treat cancers. Coated in proteins that attach to cancerous cells these nanoparticles can be used to focus laser energy into tumors while saving nearby healthy tissue. In the image on the right blue cancer cells are surrounded by yellow nanoparticles, ready to be heated up destroying the cancerous cells.
Since we can engineer nanoparticles to attach to cancer cells, can we get them to attach to viruses as well?
That is just what scientists have been working on, and they came up with hairy nanoparticles that give viruses a deadly hug.
Scientists created a 5nm particle, more than a thousand times smaller than the width of human hair, coated with proteins that hang tight to the surface of a virus.
As more and more of the nanoparticles take hold on the viral surface the virus begins to get pulled – with enough of the hairy nanoparticles holding on to the receptors the soft virus can’t handle it and pop!
Dengue, herpes, and HPV oh my!
Initial tests with the hairy nanoparticles showed that it can defeat diseases such as Dengue fever, which affects 400 million people annually worldwide. These are just some of the viruses tested with the hairy nanoparticle treatment, although it should feasibly work with other viruses like HIV, Ebola, and influenza.
The future of fighting off viruses and epidemics may just lie in the hands of tiny gold crystals.