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Scientists Explore Ways to Lure Viruses to Their Death

There are only a few basic ways to fight viruses. A vaccine can prime the immune system to attack them as soon as they invade the body//. If a virus manages to establish itself, a doctor may be able to prescribe a drug to slow down its spread. And if all else fails, a doctor may quarantine a patient to head off an epidemic.

Now some scientists are exploring a fundamentally different strategy to fight viruses. They want to wipe them out by luring them to their destruction, like mice to mousetraps.

Viruses invade a cell by latching onto certain proteins on its surface. Once attached, they can slip inside the cell and manipulate it into making new copies of themselves. But viruses cannot infect red blood cells. Unlike most other cells in the body, as red blood cells develop in bone marrow they lose their DNA. If a virus ends up inside a red blood cell, there are no genes it can hijack to replicate itself.

“It occurred to us that if a virus bound to a red blood cell, that was a dead end,” said Dr. Robert W. Finberg, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Dr. Finberg and his colleagues decided to turn red blood cells into virus traps. They would bait their traps with a surface protein called CAR. A virus called coxsackie virus B attaches to CAR, using it to invade cells in the pancreas. The new viruses produced by the pancreas stream out through the bloodstream, attaching to CAR proteins in the cells of other organs like the heart and the liver.

The researchers engineered mice to produce CAR on their red blood cells and then compared how they fared against coxsackie virus B compared with normal mice. In the engineered mice, viruses reached only 1 percent to 10 percent of the levels they reached in many organs in normal mice. The normal mice all died within a week of infection. The engineered mice tended to live longer, and after two weeks a third of them were still alive.

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