Designing Antiviral Proteins Via Computer Could Help Halt the Next Pandemic
If we want to be prepared for the worst, Bill Gates says, we have to build an arsenal of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. Some scientists are now using computers to do just that
By Ian Haydon, The Conversation, Scientific American
June 13, 2017
The following essay is reprinted with permission from The Conversation, an online publication covering the latest research.
As Bill Gates sees it, there are three main threats to our species: nuclear war, climate change and the next global pandemic.
Speaking on pandemic preparedness at the Munich Security Conference earlier this year, Gates reminded us that “the fact that a deadly global pandemic has not occurred in recent history shouldn’t be mistaken for evidence that a deadly pandemic will not occur in the future.”
If we want to be prepared for the worst, Gates says, “first and most importantly, we have to build an arsenal of new weapons – vaccines, drugs and diagnostics.”
Some scientists are now using computers to do just that.
Going beyond the immune system
Despite the availability of the flu shot, the World Health Organization reports that seasonal influenza is still responsible for millions of serious illnesses and as many as half a million deaths per year globally. The partial efficacy of each year’s flu shot, coupled with long manufacturing times and limited global availability, suggests new flu-fighting methods are still needed.
And that’s just for the seasonal flu. Pandemic influenza, like the devastating 1918 Spanish flu, could again kill tens of millions of people in a single year.
Antibodies, a natural part of the immune system, are front-line soldiers in the war against viruses. The job of an antibody is to recognize and physically adhere to a foreign invader like influenza. Human antibodies are bivalent, meaning they have two hands with which they can grab onto their target.
Under a microscope, influenza looks like a tiny ball with spikes. It uses some of its surface spikes to break into human cells. By grabbing tightly to those spikes using one or both hands, antibodies can prevent flu particles from infecting human cells. But every year the rapidly evolving influenza picks up mutations in its spike proteins, causing the sticky hands of our antibodies to no longer recognize the virus.
Researchers have long sought a universal flu vaccine – one that doesn’t need to be readministered every year. Efforts to produce one tend to involve injecting noninfectious flu lookalikes in hopes that it will prime the immune system to mount a proper attack on whatever real strain of flu it sees next. Despite some progress, researchers have not yet been able to coax the immune system to defend against all strains of influenza, and the threat of a global pandemic still looms.
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