Emerging Tech

As Ebola death toll rises, scientists work on nanotech cure

With more than 1,200 dead in latest outbreak, nanotech could lead to treatment

Emerging Tech

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Scientists at Northeastern University are using nanotechnology to find an effective treatment for the Ebola virus, which has killed more than 1,200 people and sickened even more.

What makes finding a vaccine or cure such a formidable job is that the virus mutates so quickly. How do you pin down and treat something that is continually changing?

Thomas Webster, professor and chairman of bioengineering and chemical engineering at Northeastern, may have an answer to that -- nanotechnology.

Northeastern University scientist Thomas Webster
Northeastern University scientist Thomas Webster is researching ways to use nanotechnology to treat the deadly Ebola virus. (Photo: Northeastern University)

Webster is working to develop nanoparticles that can stop the ebola virus from mutating and kill it.

The ability to do that would be a game changer for a deadly virus that many scientists and doctors fear will quickly spread across the globe.

"Since viruses, like Ebola, are nanostructures, many of us believe the only way to treat them is by using other nanomaterials," Webster said. "In nanotechnology, we turned our attention to developing nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the viruses and stop them from spreading."

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that the Ebola virus, once known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is one of the world's most virulent diseases with a fatality rate of approximately 90%. Spread by direct contact with the blood, fluids and tissues of infected animals or people, authorities have attempted to contain the outbreak, which began in Guinea and has spread to Liberia and Nigeria, which have both declared health emergencies because of it.

There are no licensed vaccines or specific treatments for the virus, although several vaccines are being tested, according to WHO.

Webster's idea is to create nanomaterials that can attach to the virus and change its structure so it can't enter cells to replicate.

"We also are developing gold nanoparticles that can attach to Ebola, and other viruses, and then when we heat up the gold through infrared wavelengths, we can selectively kill the Ebola virus," he explained to Computerworld.

A similar technique has been tested to kill cancer cells.

A little more than a year ago, a research team at Cornell University announced it had paired nanoparticles with infrared heat to kill colorectal cancer cells.

Heat has been proved to kill cancer cells, but researchers discovered that heating up the entire body damages both cancerous and healthy cells.

At Cornell, researchers devised a way to direct the heat at only the cancer cells by guiding gold nanoparticles inside the tumor, then the particles amplify any heat directed at them. By using a near-infrared laser, the nanoparticle can be heated to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to kill many cancerous cells.

The work showed a threefold increase in killing cancer cells and a "substantial," though not complete, tumor reduction within 30 days.

Scientists at Northeastern are hoping this same kind of treatment can also target and kill the Ebola virus.

To make the heat more effective, Webster and his colleagues decided that heating up a larger surface would be even more damaging to the virus cells. That led them to create a nano-structure larger than a typical nanoparticle, according to Northeastern.

The researchers built a nanostar, which has more surface area so it can conduct more heat.

"The star ... 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 into the particles."

Webster noted that his team also is researching ways to use nanoparticles that would act like a virus decoy. Those nanoparticles would attract the virus and attack them instead of healthy human cells.

Webster said he is probably five to 10 years away from having a nano-based treatment for Ebola. However, he noted that other labs are working on similar nanotech treatments, increasing the odds of creating a cure sooner.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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