Attack Ebola on a nanoscale

The Ebola virus out­break in West Africa has claimed more than 900 lives since Feb­ruary and has infected thou­sands more. Coun­tries such as Nigeria and Liberia have declared health emer­gen­cies, while the World Health Orga­ni­za­tion began a two-​​day meeting on Wednesday to dis­cuss ways to battle the outbreak.

There is no known vac­cine, treat­ment, or cure for Ebola, which is con­tracted through the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal. But that doesn’t mean there’s not hope. In fact, Chem­ical Engi­neering Chair Thomas Webster’s lab is cur­rently working on one pos­sible solu­tion for fighting Ebola and other deadly viruses: nanotechnology.

It has been very hard to develop a vac­cine or treat­ment for Ebola or sim­ilar viruses because they mutate so quickly,” explained Web­ster, the editor-​​in-​​chief of the Inter­na­tional Journal of Nanomed­i­cine. “In nan­otech­nology we turned our atten­tion to devel­oping nanopar­ti­cles that could be attached chem­i­cally to the viruses and stop them from spreading.”

Thomas Webster

One par­ticle that is showing great promise is gold. According to Web­ster, gold nanopar­ti­cles are cur­rently being used to treat cancer. Infrared waves, he explained, heat up the gold nanopar­ti­cles, which, in turn, attack and destroy every­thing from viruses to cancer cells, but not healthy cells.

Rec­og­nizing that a larger sur­face area would lead to a quicker heat-​​up time, Webster’s team cre­ated gold nanos­tars. “The star has a lot more sur­face area, so it can heat up much faster than a sphere can,” Web­ster said. “And that greater sur­face area allows it to attack more viruses once they absorb to the par­ti­cles.” The problem the researchers face, how­ever, is making sure the hot gold nanopar­ti­cles attack the virus or cancer cells rather than the healthy cells.

In addi­tion to the gold nanos­tars, Webster’s lab is also gen­er­ating a nanopar­ticle that would serve as a “virus decoy,” chem­i­cally attracting the virus to attack it rather than healthy cells.

While Webster’s lab has been working in nan­otech­nology for about 15 years, it was not until recently that his lab started to explore the ben­e­fits of nanomedicine.

We real­ized the poten­tial,” Web­ster said, noting that his stu­dent researchers use syn­thetic analogs that mimic viruses’ struc­tures. “There is obvi­ously such a huge need right now for ways to treat Ebola and other viruses, and it’s up to us to study and look at new and cre­ative ways that tra­di­tional med­i­cine really can’t.”