ONE OF THE MOST DIFFICULT ASPECTS of working at the nanoscale is actually seeing the object being worked on. Biological structures like viruses are invisible to standard optical microscopes and difficult to capture in their native form with other imaging techniques. A multidisciplinary research group at UCLA has now teamed up to not only visualize a virus but also to use the results to adapt the virus so it can deliver medication instead of disease.
In a paper published in August 2010 in the journal Science, the UCLA scientists reveal an atomically accurate structure of the adenovirus that shows the interactions among its protein networks. The work provides critical structural information for researchers around the world attempting to modify the adenovirus for use in vaccine and gene-therapy treatments for cancer.
Lily Wu, M.D., Ph.D., associate director of the UCLA Institute of Molecular Medicine and co-lead author of the study, and her group have been attempting to manipulate the adenovirus for use in gene therapy, but the lack of information about receptors on the virus’ surface had hampered their quest. Trying to visualize the adapted viruses “was like trying to piece together the components of a car in the dark, where the only way to see if you did it correctly was to try and turn the car on,” Dr. Wu says.
To achieve their goal, Dr. Wu and her collaborators teamed up with the California Nano-Systems Institute at UCLA to use cryo-electron microscopy to produce atomically accurate 3-D models of biological samples such as viruses.
“This breakthrough is a great leap forward,” Dr. Wu says. “If our work is successful, this therapy could be used to treat most forms of cancer.”