A group of Korean researchers are working on an artificial virus. That might sound like time to dispatch both James Bond AND Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Ultimate Mad Scientist Destruction Crossover, but here in the real world it turns out that: a) Viruses aren't necessarily bad; b) Not everyone outside America is evil.
The researchers, based in Yonsei University, Seoul, have come up with an artificial self-assembling virus which could be used to deliver drugs directly to your cells. Self-assembly is an awesome perk - building a virus protein by protein would require the worlds tiniest tweezers and levels of patience beyond even the Buddha. Self-assembling nanostructures do exactly what is says on the tin - you mix the correct ingredients, give it the necessary shake, and presto! Millions of what you want.
In this case "what you want" are hordes of filamentous virus structures capable of carrying "guest" drugs direct to their destination. The researchers demonstrated the transport of the fluorescent chemical "nile red" into cell cytoplasms and nuclei - a very nifty tool for experimental anti-cancer medications, since the nucleus (as the name suggests) is the central point for many cell functions. Rather than flooding your system with oral or injected medicines and simply hoping that enough gets where it needs to be, a pharmacological smart-bomb can be delivered direct to the nucleus by an escort of artificial invaders.
The viruses also have applications in gene therapy, the idea that debugging your DNA can help avoid or even eliminate some sicknesses. Even when we know what changes to make actually getting into the double-helix and moving things around is very fiddly - but for viruses, that's kind of their thing. The whole point of a virus is to hijack your molecular machinery to produce more copies of itself, which it does by editing your DNA code. It's a perfectly tuned genetic machine, so it's a pity it tends to do things like "rabies" and "smallpox". Artificial viruses could be programmed to use the same mechanisms for slightly more desirable results, as demonstrated by the team's incorporation of siRNA (small interfering RNA) into the artificial virus. Gene knockdown experiments indicated high transfection efficiencies (translation: "it worked").
This research is a terrific demonstration of just how good science can get - combining the technological wizardry we're developing ourselves with looking at nature and saying "Wow, that system works pretty well." When you're able to build your own viruses to make people healthier, the term "Lords of Creation" does seem to apply.
Posted by Luke McKinney.
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