Throughout its evolution, the dengue virus has met little in the way of biological resistance to its spread. That’s now about to change after scientists recently published details of a newly created nemesis for viruses – a trap made from DNA. The research, which was published in the Nature Chemistry scientific journal, describes a five-pointed star made from DNA, released into a bloodstream. When a dengue virus moves within proximity, the DNA attaches itself and holds on tight.
The DNA ‘trap’ has been engineered by scientists working with the latest ‘nanoscale’ technology in the world. There is hope that the DNA trap they have created, or variations on it, could represent a revolutionary new way to combat a wide range of viral infections. Perhaps even cancers.
Our immune systems are able to identify and attack dangerous viruses and bacteria as a result of unique molecular structures, like proteins, that mark their outsides. That’s why we are more effective at combating those our bodies have encountered before. But the antibodies our bodies are able to produce naturally are not effective against every kind of invader. But now, nanotechnology has started to mean scientists can engineer at the miniscule scale of the immune system. That’s offered the prospect of us making new structures specifically designed to spot and neutralise invaders we otherwise struggle with.
The dengue virus, which the scientists focused their research on, is armed with ‘latch points’ that allow it to fix itself onto cells and attack them. But they also offered scientists a nanostructure to mimic. DNA is perfect for building nanostructures because its own molecular building blocks only attach to one another, allowing scientists to use DNA molecules like Lego to create specific and complex structures. In 2006 scientists famously built a ‘smiley face’ from DNA.
That flexibility has opened up opportunities. Opportunities such as using DNA to create a structure that is the perfect mirror image of the outside of a dengue virus. That allows it to latch on and stick to any passing virus. As an encore, the scientists also designed their DNA traps to fluoresce when they have captured a virus, which allows them to quickly see where the virus is present.
As well as tackling viruses, which cannot attack cells if they have another structure attached to themselves, scientists believe they may be able to also design DNA ‘net’ traps. These could enmesh cells, for example cancer cells, stopping, or limiting, them from proliferating.
Illinois University’s Xing Wang, who led the research, explained the advantage of breakthroughs in the creation of nanostructures programmed to attack viruses:
“For lots of viruses, there is little we can do and they are very hard to get rid of. There’s no effective drug for dengue virus. Treatment is based on the human natural response through our immune systems. So you have to suffer first. That’s the major reasons we wanted to target it.”
The team’s nanostructures have now demonstrated that they can tackle the dengue virus more effectively than anything currently on the market. Another advantage is that the nanostructure ‘trap’ approach needs almost no specialist equipment. Dr Wang believes the DNA approach’s potential is huge:
“DNA is naturally made by organisms, and has very low toxicity. This strategy can be used to target surface patterns throughout the biological world: viruses, bacteria, fungi, cancers. Looking at that is our next step.”