A spoonful of sugar – Manchester scientists make antiviral breakthrough
Our partners 27th February 2020
Scientists have created a new antiviral treatment that goes down as well as a spoonful of sugar.
Viruses are likely at the forefront of many people’s minds right now given the coronavirus (2019-nCoV, to give it its technical name) outbreak, with more than 82,000 confirmed cases of the virus at the time of writing. However, it’s not the only virus with no known cure. In fact, most viral infections have no cure – you have to simply wait and let your immune system tackle it.
And the treatments that are available are not straightforward cures either. Instead they help to reduce or mask the symptoms of the virus, or prevent the spread or growth of the virus within the host. However, as many viruses can mutate, these antivirals are not always effective.
Viruses are tiny organisms consisting of genetic materials within a protein shell that invade other organisms. Once inside the host cells, they replicate, resulting in the change or destruction of the healthy cells.
However, they can be destroyed – by virucides. These are chemical agents that help deactivate the virus. The catch? They are toxic to humans.
A good example of a virucidal that can destroy viruses on contact is bleach. But no doctor is going to advise a patient use bleach as a cure. So what’s the answer?
Cue a new collaboration between scientists at The University of Manchester, the University of Geneva and the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). They have developed new antiviral materials that can kill a virus on contact – but pose no risk to humans. And the secret ingredient? Sugar!
Helping the medicine go down
This new virucidal substance is created from natural glucose derivatives – or modified sugar molecules – known as cyclodextrins. Rather than simply restricting the growth of the virus, the substance was shown to attract the virus and then actually destroy it by disrupting its outer shell.
Dr Samuel Jones, joint leader of the research and a member of the Henry Royce Institute for Advanced Materials, says: “This is a new type of antiviral that, unlike current antivirals, destroys viruses on contact. This means it is one of the first to show broad-spectrum efficacy and has the potential to be a game changer in treating viral infections.”
He adds: “We are looking at ways these antivirals could be used in the treatment and prevention of emerging viral outbreaks, but more time and research is needed.”
The breakthrough, detailed in the journal Science Advances, is still in very early days. However, the team believes it has the potential to fight many common viruses, such as herpes simplex – the virus that causes cold sores – and respiratory infections, as well as more serious viruses, including hepatitis C, Zika virus, dengue fever and HIV. It even has the potential to be used in the fight against outbreaks of new viral diseases.
Adds Prof Francesco Stellacci of EPFL: “We have been trying to develop a broad spectrum antiviral for years. The idea has been to provide a single solution for many existing viral infections and at the same time be ready for emerging viruses. Indeed, we have strong hopes that our molecule will be effective against the current coronavirus outbreak when tested in the next weeks.”
Dr Jones has recently applied for funding to potentially develop the breakthrough further, in response to a UK call for the development of new vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics that could help slow or halt the spread of coronavirus.
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Words – Hayley Cox