New sugar-based molecule rips drug-resistant viruses to death

Oh, sweet victory — a team of researchers from the University of Manchester, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the Federal Polytechnic School of Lausanne (EPFL) have developed a new virus-killing substance derived from sugar.

Artist’s impression of a virus being attacked by the new molecules.
Image credits EPFL.

Viruses aren’t easy to kill, especially in a way that doesn’t affect our own cells. Most of the drugs and chemicals that can destroy viruses also come with a host of side-effects on human health, as they impact our bodies to a lesser or greater extent. So one of the most usual approaches in dealing with viruses is to not actually kill them but to disrupt their ability to infect cells or multiply.

However, a new paper describes the development of a new sugar-based molecule that will actually destroy such pathogens, but leave our own cells unaffected.

A sticky demise

“We have successfully engineered a new molecule, which is a modified sugar that shows broad-spectrum antiviral properties,” says Samuel Jones and Valeria Cagno, lead researchers on the study.

“As this is a new type of antiviral and one of the first to ever show broad-spectrum efficacy, it has potential to be a game changer in treating viral infections.”

Viricides are substances or compounds that outright kill viruses instead of the traditional approach. The time window between when a traditional antiviral first makes contact with a virus and its death gives the pathogen an opportunity to develop defenses, and this new compound is aimed at combating that exact mechanism. Most importantly, however, is that the sugar-based molecule is effective against multiple types of viruses and completely benign for human cells.

The team started from cyclodextrins, naturally-occurring molecules that are related to glucose. They then engineered these molecules to attract viruses, stick to their membranes, and tear them apart — which effectively destroys the pathogen.

Microscope image of a virus before and after treatment with the molecule.
Image credits EPFL.

The team tested their compound on several types of viruses including herpes, HIV, hepatitis C, Zika and respiratory syncytial virus; it performed very well against all of them, they report. The tests involved both laboratory trials using tissue cultures, as well as live mice. Overall, the viricide was effective and didn’t harm either cultured or live cells and tissues, and the team found that the viruses weren’t able to develop resistance to the compound.

The sugar-based viricide has the most promise in use against viruses that have evolved resistance to other treatments, the team explains. It has already been patented and the team is currently setting up a new company to market it, with the end goal of developing ointments, nasal sprays, and other treatment options based on the molecule.

The paper “Modified cyclodextrins as broad-spectrum antivirals” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

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