by Sean Captain of fastcompany.com
Soon your bathroom might have antimicrobial soap that doesn’t just kill bacteria, but also wipes out Ebola, Zika, dengue, or herpes. That’s the promise of a new chemical just announced by IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) in Singapore. Such a soap is just one of the potential uses of this “macromolecule,” says James Hedrick, one of the lead researchers on the project at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA. If taken as a medication, the macromolecule would also have two ways to protect cells from any virus that does get past the first defense.
“It’s almost a daunting task to design any kind of therapeutic for a virus,” says Hedrick, because they are so varied. Some use DNA to carry their genetic instructions, and some use RNA. Some come wrapped in a membrane, some don’t. But all viruses mutate quickly, sidestepping chemicals designed to precisely attack them. Working with a bunch of research institutions, IBM and Singapore’s IBN instead invented a chemical that attacks something fundamental to all viruses—something that mutations don’t change.
“We began to think, how can we move forward and kind of attack the virus in a very different way,” says Hedrick. “Instead of going after its RNA or DNA, we looked at the glycoproteins that surround…the virus.” No matter what the virus and how it mutates, it’s going to have these substances on the surface; they have electric charges (some positive, some negative) that a chemical can stick onto. What the researchers developed is a polymer that adheres to the virus, blocking it from hooking onto a victim cell in the body. That’s step one.
The macromolecule can also stick to immune cells such as macrophages, blocking the spot where a virus would attach. (It’s very unlikely for the same macromolecule to attach to both a virus and an immune cell.) The giant molecule is decorated (actual scientific term) with a sugar called mannose. “The way we look at it, it’s kind of like honey, right. It’s kind of sticky,” says Hedrick. Technically, it forms hydrogen bonds to mannose receptors on the human cell. “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,” says Hedrick. The mannose sugar, it turns out, also blocks the macromolecule’s toxic effects, according to a paper the researchers published.