How it lives in boiling acid offers template for delivering gene therapy
By unlocking the secrets of a bizarre virus that survives in nearly boiling acid, scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have found a blueprint for battling human disease using DNA clad in near-indestructible armor.
“What’s interesting and unusual is being able to see how proteins and DNA can be put together in a way that’s absolutely stable under the harshest conditions imaginable,” said Edward H. Egelman, PhD, of the UVA Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Genetics. “We’ve discovered what appears to be a basic mechanism of resistance – to heat, to desiccation, to ultraviolet radiation. And knowing that, then, we can go in many different directions, including developing ways to package DNA for gene therapy.”
Finding effective packaging for DNA delivery is important because the human body has many ways to degrade and remove foreign DNA – that’s how it combats viruses. But that protective mechanism becomes a major obstacle for doctors seeking to use genes to battle disease. Creating an impenetrable packaging would overcome that problem, and this strange virus offers a promising template.
The virus, SIRV2, infects a microscopic organism known as Sulfolobus islandicus that lives in what Egelman described as “extremely unusual” conditions: acidic hot springs where temperatures top 175 degrees Fahrenheit. The research identified surprising similarities between the SIRV2 virus and the spores bacteria form to survive in inhospitable environments. “Some of these spores are responsible for very, very horrific diseases that are hard to treat, like anthrax. So we show in this paper that this virus actually functions in a similar way to some of the proteins present in bacterial spores,” he said. Spores are also formed by C. difficile, which now accounts for approximately 30,000 deaths per year in the U.S. and has been classified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having a threat level of “urgent.” “Understanding how these bacterial spores work gives us potentially new abilities to destroy them,” Egelman said. “Having this basic scientific research leads in many, many directions, most of which are impossible to predict, in terms of what the implications are going to be.”
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