Part of the difficulty in tackling viruses like Ebola and Zika is that they're all so different, and each one can regularly mutate to create different strains within the same virus.
To address this, scientists have been busy looking at common characteristics of viruses that could be used to develop an all-powerful vaccine capable of fighting off any infection, and researchers over at IBM say they're getting close.
It's exciting stuff: A macromolecule – a giant molecule made up of smaller units – has now been developed that could have the potential to block multiple types of viruses, despite the many variations involved. It's still early days yet, but the results could lead to drugs that aren't tricked by mutating virus strains.
The scientists, from tech giant IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, ignored the RNA and DNA of the viruses they used for testing – these would traditionally be the areas to target, as they give the viruses their characteristics, but they also tend to vary from virus to virus and mutation to mutation.
Instead the team looked at glycoproteins–large molecules attached to the outside of all viruses and capable of latching onto cells in the body, which is the process that actually makes us sick. The macromolecule that's now been developed attracts viruses and then hitches a ride on these glycoproteins, neutralising their acidity levels and making them less able to replicate in the process.
The macromolecule has another method of attack too – a sugar called mannose, which attaches itself to healthy immune cells and draws them closer to the virus, speeding up the fight against the infection.
Based on the tests already carried out by the team on viruses such as Ebola and dengue, the macromolecule works as intended. It binds itself to the glycoproteins, disabling viral ability to infect healthy cells, while the mannose was also found to be effective in stopping viruses from infecting immune cells.
In the short term, the researchers think the macromolecules could be used in antiviral wipes or detergents, Gizmag's Chris Wood reports. With further study, we could see vaccinations that are capable of protecting us against a whole range of viruses.
"It's almost a daunting task to design any kind of therapeutic for a virus," lead researcher James Hedrick of IBM Research explained to Samantha Olson at Medical Daily. "[The glycoprotein is] kind of like honey. It's kind of sticky. We can now competitively go after this cell faster than the virus can go after your immune cell. And once we block those receptors, we prevent infection."
The group's findings have been published in the journal Macromolecules.
"Viral diseases continue to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality," said the study’s lead author Dr. Yi Yan Yang, a group leader at IBN. "We have created an anti-viral macromolecule that can tackle viruses by blocking the virus from infecting the cells, regardless of mutations. It is not toxic to healthy cells and is safe for use. This promising research advance represents years of hard work and collaboration with a global community of researchers."