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A Research Team Looks to Nanotechnology to Fight Ebola Virus

With existing medicines unable to stem the Ebola outbreak, researchers turn to nanotech for a solution

2 min read
A Research Team Looks to Nanotechnology to Fight Ebola Virus
Image: Getty Images

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.”

The Conversation (0)
Illustration showing an astronaut performing mechanical repairs to a satellite uses two extra mechanical arms that project from a backpack.

Extra limbs, controlled by wearable electrode patches that read and interpret neural signals from the user, could have innumerable uses, such as assisting on spacewalk missions to repair satellites.

Chris Philpot

What could you do with an extra limb? Consider a surgeon performing a delicate operation, one that needs her expertise and steady hands—all three of them. As her two biological hands manipulate surgical instruments, a third robotic limb that’s attached to her torso plays a supporting role. Or picture a construction worker who is thankful for his extra robotic hand as it braces the heavy beam he’s fastening into place with his other two hands. Imagine wearing an exoskeleton that would let you handle multiple objects simultaneously, like Spiderman’s Dr. Octopus. Or contemplate the out-there music a composer could write for a pianist who has 12 fingers to spread across the keyboard.

Such scenarios may seem like science fiction, but recent progress in robotics and neuroscience makes extra robotic limbs conceivable with today’s technology. Our research groups at Imperial College London and the University of Freiburg, in Germany, together with partners in the European project NIMA, are now working to figure out whether such augmentation can be realized in practice to extend human abilities. The main questions we’re tackling involve both neuroscience and neurotechnology: Is the human brain capable of controlling additional body parts as effectively as it controls biological parts? And if so, what neural signals can be used for this control?

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