German scientists want to trap viruses in living traps inside our body

The current standard of treatment for viral diseases assumes that first there must be infection of our cells with the virus, and then somehow it will be . What if we were able to catch viruses before contacting the cells?

The principle of its operation is quite simple: the virus enters our body and before entering the cells located in our lungs, it goes to a container that from its point of view seems to be very attractive, so it tries to infect it and ... falls into the trap without output. Goodbye flu, we won't miss you.

To implement this project, however, scientists from Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie, the Free University of Berlin, the Technical University of Berlin, the Humboldt University and the Robert Koch Institute needed six years to find (or actually find and modify) the perfect trap for influenza viruses. The bacteriophage Qβ shell turned out to be an ideal container.

- Preclinical studies show that we are able to neutralize both seasonal influenza viruses and avian influenza using our chemically modified phage shell. This is a great success, which offers completely new perspectives and development of new antiviral drugs - says prof. Christian Hackenberger from Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie.

Flu trap

The new inhibitor uses a function that all influenza viruses have: on their surface there are trivalent receptors called hemagglutinin protein, which attach themselves to sugar molecules (sialic acids) located on the surface of a lung tissue cell. During infection, viruses attach to their victim - in this case lung cells - in a similar way to how Velcro fasteners work - i.e. the attachment reaction requires a lot of binding, otherwise it will not happen.

It is this property of the surface structure of influenza viruses that has inspired researchers to look for an inhibitor that would bind to their trivalent receptors, thereby simulating the surface of lung tissue cells.

After many years of searching, the ideal candidate turned out to be the Q-beta phage, which is a harmless inhabitant of our intestines. It has ideal surface properties, and its coating is ideal for arming it with a bait in the form of sugar molecules (ligand) that bind to the hemagglutinin receptors of viruses.

"In other words, we're using a modified phage to turn off the flu virus," explains Hackenberger

However, for the whole idea to work, it needs to be modified. To this end, German researchers developed a procedure using synthetic chemistry and modified E. coli to produce and attach the appropriate sugar molecules to the bacteriophage coating. The trap modified in this way is ready for use.

What's next? Can the German discovery be adapted to fight SARS-CoV-2?

Several studies using animal models and cell cultures have been very positive. What's more, the Germans tested how their new invention copes with catching popular strains of influenza virus found in humans and birds. The modified phage turned out to be very effective in catching them. The introduction of modified bacteriophages into the culture of pulmonary cells infected with influenza virus quickly caused the virus to rapidly lose its reproductive capacity.

The results of German research are to be revised as soon as possible in terms of using their solution to treat patients with COVID-19, a disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. It is not known, however, whether to catch the coronavirus it will be necessary to develop a new trap that would fully bind to the peak protein of the virus, which is responsible for binding to the membrane of the cell it infected and activated by the enzyme located on the surface of the lung cells.

Activated virus proteins bind to the human receptor encoded by the ACE2 gene. So it is possible that in order to develop a trap for SARS-CoV-2 we will have to develop a trap with receptors encoded by the same gene. If it turned out that it could actually be possible to encode completely harmless bacteriophages, which when combined with virus cells would prevent it from reproducing further and to develop a way to effectively deliver such traps to the places of occurrence of viruses in our body, it would certainly be one of the most important discoveries in the history of medicine.

Unfortunately, developing such things usually takes a long time. Even in these exceptional circumstances, I doubt that the inhaler with the right and universal dose of virus traps would be ready this year or next. The concept itself, however, gives hope that similar pandemics in the future will no longer be justified. Unless an even more malicious virus appears that decides to change the species it infects ...



German scientists want to trap viruses in living traps inside our body

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