I’ve got you under my skin


The London offices of Nature are blighted by viruses at the moment – I’ve currently got the worst cold that I’ve had in years, and several other scourges are also rampant, including the notorious norovirus (otherwise known as the ‘winter vomiting bug’). With the recent news that avian flu has apparently now been brought to the UK by migrating birds, I decided to see how chemists have been dabbling in the world of viruses.

So let’s start with avian flu. A fascinating paper in Nature Biotechnology uncovers what would need to happen at a molecular level for the virus to become transmissible between humans (subscribers can see the paper here, but there’s also a C & EN article about it here). Infection is mediated by the binding of hemagglutinin (HA) proteins on the virus to sugars on HA receptors in the host. Ram Sasisekharan and his team have found that the shape formed by the carbohydrates is all important: the sugars on avian HA receptors form a cone-shape, but human sugars are arranged more like umbrellas. So, if the virus can mutate to bind to our ‘umbrellas’, we could be in trouble. Sasisekharan’s discovery might provide a way of checking whether new mutants of the virus could cause a human pandemic. None of this research would have been possible without recent advances in carbohydrate synthesis and mass spectrometry.

Those of you interested in nanotechnology may be interested to hear of a report in ACS Nano, which describes how quantum dots can be attached to cowpea mosaic virus to construct a minuscule memory device (click here for the paper). Mihri Ozkan and her group show that the resulting hybrid particles demonstrate reversible, bistable electrical behaviour, suitable for repeated write-read-erase cycles. Mind boggling stuff. I like the idea of making cyborg viruses, as long as they don’t give me a cold.

Meanwhile, John Robinson and his group report in Angewandte Chemie on the use of synthetic virus-like particles (subcribers can read the paper here). These star-like structures self-assemble from lipopeptides, and the authors have attached synthetic antigens to them. When injected into rabbits, the antigen-carrying particles trigger an immune response – the rabbits generate antibodies to the antigens. The authors hope that their particles have a bright future in the design of synthetic vaccines. I hope so too. Perhaps they can find a vaccine for the common cold. For now, I’ll just have to keep taking the paracetamol.


Andrew Mitchinson (Associate Editor, Nature)

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