By Liz Humes
An obscure virus that does not harm human cells has been generating a wave of excitement in the scientific community. So what is the big deal? A team of researchers from UCLA has reported the 3D structure of the vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV) in a break-through study published in the February 5th edition of Science (full article). Their findings may shed light on how VSV can be manipulated and used in the treatment of cancer and in the development of vaccines for HIV and other harmful viruses.
The researchers used advanced, cutting-edge imaging techniques to visualize the 3D structure of VSV, which appears to have a bullet shaped head and cylindrical trunk. They also characterized how the virus comes to form this bullet shape. With this additional level of understanding of the physical structure of the virus, scientists believe that they can find ways to modify the structure of the virus and use it to treat and prevent illnesses such as cancer and AIDS.
As author Z. Hong Zhou remarked, “This work moves our understanding of the biology of this large and medically important class of viruses ahead in a dramatic way.”
VSV is a model virus that scientists use in the laboratory to study dangerous viruses that cause illnesses such as the flu, measles, and rabies. Previous studies have shown that VSV can detect and kill human cancer cells. Other studies have addressed the question of how to manipulate the virus to deliver a vaccine against HIV to the human body.
(Video is a 3D animation of the lower trunk structure of VSV-source)
A closer look at vaccine technology
A current trend in vaccine development is to use harmless viruses as “vectors” that can carry a specific vaccine to human cells. These viruses have been engineered in the laboratory to carry pieces of genetic material from other pathogens and when they attach to human cells, they inject this genetic material into the cells. These actions mirror an infection by the pathogen itself, although the virus vector does not actually cause an infection, and stimulates an immune response. The human body then remembers how to respond to this pathogen the next time it encounters the pathogen and the body is protected from infection.
Modified versions of the viruses that cause the common cold and small pox are being studied in addition to VSV for use as vaccine vectors. Given the potential that this type of vaccination has to prevent deadly infections from viruses and bacteria, this is an area of research one should surely keep an eye on.
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