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Converting bad viruses to good

Dr Derek Hao – Centre for Catalysis and Clean Energy, Griffith University
Sally Diehm – MacGregor State High School
Lily Davis – MacGregor State High School

When we talk about viruses, most people would feel uneasy at the thought of being exposed to such a hazard. Dr Frank Sainsbury feels differently though – for him, viruses have the potential to be converted into useful tools in the fight against diseases.

Dr Sainsbury leads a research team affiliated with the Centre for Cell Factories and Biopolymers at the Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University. When he was in high school and during his Bachelor degree at the University of Sydney, he found botany very interesting and was full of curiosity about plants from all over the world. This opened the door that led him to becoming an internationally renowned biologist working in biomolecular engineering, plant biotechnology and virology.

Currently, Dr Sainsbury and his team are studying how proteins assemble in plants and how viruses such as the cowpea mosaic virus can be used to understand diseases and carry proteins.

Proteins are polymer chains made of amino acids linked together. They are the material basis of life, the basic organic matter that constitute cells, and the main undertakers of the tasks that allow our bodies to function. There is no life without proteins. Proteins also play an important role in disease, and in some cases can be used in the same way a drug can to treat sicknesses. However, it is not easy to deliver proteins to where they need to be within the body to combat illnesses.

Dr. Sainsbury’s team are working on using viruses as novel medicine carriers. Through the modification of virus capsids, which are the outer shell of a virus, they have been studying approaches to placing therapeutic proteins into the virus itself. Essentially, they are turning “bad” viruses into “good” viruses.

Dr. Frank Sainsbury

“Encapsulation inside repurposed virus capsids protects and stabilises proteins. We spent many years working on ways to load virus particles with useful proteins and now we want to use the excellent ability of viruses to enter cells as delivery vehicles,” said Dr Sainsbury.

For example, Dr Sainsbury’s team have found that one virus from mice is able to efficiently protect and deliver protein cargos to a specific subcellular compartment in human cells that is otherwise a fairly inhospitable place for therapeutic proteins.

Dr Sainsbury’s team also examine how virus particles can be given new abilities. For example, they modified the capsids of one virus so that it gives off fluorescent signals, which can be used to observe and follow the virus as it infects cells. Using a fluorescence microscope, the team can essentially watch a movie of the virus as it moves about. This can be used to gain an understanding of the pathways and mechanisms viruses use to infect cells and gain information on how to develop targeted medicines and vaccines.

“As we learn more and more about viruses we are finding out that they are fundamental to our existence. We all know about the serious diseases caused by viruses, but we can learn a lot from the harmless or even beneficial associations between viruses and their hosts,” said Dr Sainsbury.

While many people may fear being exposed to viruses, the work of Dr Sainsbury and his team shows that they can be useful tools for increasing our understanding of diseases and as carriers of protein therapeutics. Curiosity led Dr Sainsbury to examine the potential use of viruses, and we are sure to see more interesting applications of them from his team in future.

Judges’ Feedback

“Well-written and with some interesting phrases and memorable statements, this is a well informed and argued piece of writing. I was intrigued by the topic and would love to know more about Dr Sainsbury’s work.”

“This was a concisely written story that introduces a novel therapeutic strategy from Dr.
Frank Sainsbury.”