With the Ebola virus death toll now topping 1000 and even the much publicized experimental treatment ZMapp failing to save the life of a Spanish missionary priest who was treated with it, it is clear that scientists need to explore new ways of fighting the deadly disease. For researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, one possibility may be using nanotechnology.
“It has been very hard to develop a vaccine or treatment for Ebola or similar viruses because they mutate so quickly,” said Thomas Webster, the chair of Northeastern’s chemical engineering department, in a press release. “In nanotechnology we turned our attention to developing nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the viruses and stop them from spreading.”
Webster, along with many researchers in the nanotechnology community, have been trying to use gold nanoparticles, in combination with near-infrared light, to kill cancer cells with heat. The hope is that the same approach could be used to kill the Ebola virus.
His team is currently developing methods to make cancer cells attract gold nanoparticles. Infrared light them heats up the particles, destroying the cancer cells. Healthy cells wouldn't attract the nanoparticles and would not be affected. To magnify the heating effect, Webster increased the surface area of the gold nanoparticles by shaping them as stars. He dubbed them gold nanostars.
“The star has a lot more surface area, so it can heat up much faster than a sphere can,” Webster said in the release. “And that greater surface area allows it to attack more viruses once they adsorb to the particles.”
At his lab, he and his students are testing the nanostars on synthetic analogs that mimic viruses’ structures. He said they've "realized the potential," and although he's hopeful, he doesn't want to create false expectations, noting that using nanotechnology to fight the Ebola virus is still in its early days.
“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.”
Dexter Johnson is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum, with a focus on nanotechnology.