Nanochemistry for Biosensing: Nanotechnology and the Flu Virus

By Miro Cafolla, Postgraduate and International Tutor. A part of the 2018/19 Café Scientifique Series.

On the 4 March 2019, St John’s had the great pleasure of listening to a talk delivered by one of the most renowned leading international scientists in the field of nanotechnology: Jurriaan Husken, Professor of Supramolecular Chemistry & Nanofabrication Molecular Nanofabrication group (University of Twente). The talk was highly interdisciplinary given the background and current interests of Professor Huskens who studied as a chemist and is now applying nanotechnology to the biomedical field.

Professor Huskens gave a short introduction on the importance for science to visualise the phenomena under investigation. Alongside the new scientific method by Galileo Galilei, two crucial inventions have significantly improved science: the Optical Microscope in the 17th century and of the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM) in 1986. The two microscopes have allowed us to “see” and and accurately characterise biological samples and molecules with a size of a few micrometers and nanometers, respectively. AFM can be, in particular, applied to the biomedical field so as to study the interactions between human cells and bacteria or viruses.

Professor Huskens has recently focused his studies on characterising the mechanisms by which the flu virus binds to cell membranes. A better understanding of such a key step within the influenza infection is likely to result in designing better medication. Professor Huskens continued saying that we may think of flu as a trivial infection. Alongside its unpleasant effects we all have experienced at least once in our life, influenza virus is, however, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths per year- without of course considering the highly lethal species such as the Spanish flu which killed millions of people in the 1920s. Flu virus is very dangerous for immunodeficient patients, but it also represents a potential risk for immunocompetent people. This is because flu virus continuously mutates and species, which are resistant to existing drugs, may potentially appear in the future.

Professor Huskens has recently started a collaboration with my group so as to complement his chemistry binding studies on the flu virus with AFM. This multidisciplinary approach should allow better characterising the multivalent interactions of the virus envelope proteins on the surfaces of epithelial cells in the lung and throat. The virus envelope proteins can be thought as a number of hands which allow the virus itself to stick to the cell but be still mobile rolling over it, and spreading over cells nearby. This is because the binding of the virus is highly dynamic. By continuously forming and destroying bonds, the virus move over the cells. This can be thought as when we use our feet and hands so as to climb a mountain.  It is clear that if we fully understand the nature and the dynamics of the virus-cell surface interactions, we may be able to stop the binding of the flu virus to our cells.

The typical structure of a virus.
Photo Credits: Ben Taylor.

The talk by Professor Huskens definitely bridged all the previous talks for this academic year and helped us to better understand the deep connections among scientific fields which may appear very different. Similarly to the first Café scientifique event delivered by Professor Quinlan, the talk by Professor Huskens highlighted that vision is arguably the most important way to learn about the world around ourselves. The second and the third talks allowed appreciating the key role for nanotechnology to solve crucial problems in our world, such as those related to oil recovery and developing quantum computers. The talk by Professor Huskens showed us that nanotechnology plays a fundamental role also in the biomedical field and has the potential to dramatically improve our everyday life.c

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