The recent outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa has claimed the lives of thousands of people and has highlighted an urgent need for experimental treatments to stop the spread of the virus. Nanotechnology could be one way of approaching the problem.
EVD is a haemorrhagic fever, the symptoms of which deteriorate rapidly from flu-like symptoms to bleeding and multiple organ dysfunction. It has a very high mortality rate, as demonstrated by the fact that over 3,000 people have died out of the more than 6,500 reported as being infected with the virus. There is currently no specific treatment regimen or a preventative vaccine available.
Scientists working in a laboratory at Northeastern University in Boston, United States, have announced their intention to create gold nanoparticles that could kill Ebola viruses in the bloodstream. The team at the Nanomedicine Laboratory, led by Dr Thomas Webster, has been working on generating gold nanoparticles that find and stick to cancer cells. Once attached, infra-red waves heat up the gold particles for selective destruction of the cancer cells.
Dr Webster believes that this approach can be modified so the nanoparticles could target the Ebola virus. His team has developed gold “nano-stars”, which have a greater surface area and can heat up more quickly. Before this technology can be used as a nanomedicine, however, scientists must be confident that the nano-stars will target only the Ebola virus and not stick to healthy cells.
Webster’s lab is also working on creating a virus decoy, a nanoparticle that could attract the virus away from healthy cells.
Another approach is the development of an artificial “bio-spleen” which uses nano-magnets to filter the Ebola virus out of the blood of an infected person. The spleen, which was invented by scientists at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, is similar to a dialysis machine. It uses magnetic nanobeads coated with mannose-binding lectin, an engineered human protein that binds to pathogens such as the Ebola virus. The bio-spleen then uses a magnet to pull the coated beads out of the blood, removing the attached pathogens as well. The spleen has been shown to be successful in laboratory experiments and is now being tested in animal models.
Both of these techniques are highly experimental and are nowhere near ready to be applied to the current crisis in West Africa. But they highlight that addressing complex health challenges such as the Ebola outbreak requires novel and innovative thinking from creative scientific minds.
Writer: Michelle Robinson