Viruses survive by invading host cells and then releasing genetic information inside. The virus hijacks the cell’s infrastructure so that it is forced to replicate this genetic information again and again: that’s how viruses are able to spread through the body.
Without this genetic information, the capsules pose no risk to human cells. But because of their virus-like structure, they do have the potential to release information into host cells if that’s what we wanted.
Whilst extremely harmful coming from a virus, the hijacking and replication process could prove highly useful if the capsules were to release genes that had a positive effect on the host.
Gene therapy is the practice of inserting new genes into the body that replace or shut off the body’s own defective genes. This approach is being studied as a tool to treat a range of genetic diseases including cystic fibrosis, cancer, sickle cell disease and some forms of muscular dystrophy.
His group’s success in creating an empty capsule assembled from protein fragments could be a significant step forward for gene therapy, as it presents a new way of transporting genes into the body’s cells.
The UCL and NPL group tested the ability of their capsules to transport genes in this way and found them to be successful. They inserted model genes designed to prevent a certain process taking place within human cells. When the capsules delivered these new genes, they found that the target process was indeed stopped.
This group’s discoveries have profound implications for efforts to tackle antimicrobial resistance and genetic disease. The work is still in its early stages, but if it continues it could prove a potent method for destroying bacteria and providing gene therapy – this would make it a ground-breaking finding for medical research.
Rohanah Hussain is Senior Beamline Scientist on B23, one of the beamlines used in the research. She observes: “The ability to scrutinise biological processes on the atomic scale is revolutionising our approach to health and medicine. As technology continues to develop, we’re likely to see more and more drugs emerging that are highly targeted at the molecular level. Ultimately, this revolutionary shift is only possible thanks to our growing knowledge of the biological world at its deepest and most intricate level.”
The findings may provide new approaches for antimicrobial engineering and gene therapy