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MIT chemists hope manmade ‘xenoproteins’ can help battle diseases like Ebola

Traffic was seen a street northwest of DR Congo as 45 cases of Ebola virus has been recorded in the region.
JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images
Traffic was seen a street northwest of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as 45 cases of Ebola virus has been recorded in the region.

As health officials scramble to contain the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MIT chemists say they may be getting closer to finding a new weapon in the fight.

The researchers have been working for four years to create tens of millions of artificial amino acids that one day could be used as drugs against Ebola and other viruses, said Brad Pentelute, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the senior author of a recent study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins. The researchers have used the manmade amino acids to create many new artificial proteins, or xenoproteins, that researchers hope to use against not only Ebola but also anthrax and other deadly infectious diseases.

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“A lot of folks have been working hard to incorporate one or two non-natural amino acids into a protein, but what we can do is install the whole non-natural sequence and still have a functional molecule,” Pentelute said.

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Although some might be wary of proteins not found in nature, the new xenoproteins are more stable, easier to administer, and can be manufactured more quickly, Pentelute said. They also won’t degrade as quickly and, unlike drugs assembled with natural proteins, don’t have to be refrigerated, which means you could carry these drugs around in your pocket, he said.

Plus, he said, many drugs today already are artificially crafted.

“The big thing is that a lot of drugs can be immunogenic and they degrade and you have to keep them in refrigerators. They’re not very stable,” he said.

Here’s how it works.

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The scientists use the non-natural amino acids to create a class of xenoproteins — a process that only takes hours, Pentelute said. From that class, the researchers identify the specific ones that would successfully bind to particular antibodies, such as the one that attacks the Ebola virus. Once the xenoproteins attach themselves to the antibody and virus, they turn off the ability of the virus to live in a host, neutralizing the disease, he said.

Animal tests are underway, Pentelute said.

The MIT group is working with John Dye of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, Pentelute said.

“The hope is that we can discover molecules in a rapid manner using this platform, and we can chemically manufacture them on demand,” Pentelute said in an MIT statement. “And after we make them, they can be shipped all over the place without refrigeration, for use in the field.”

On Monday, health officials in Congo began administering an experimental vaccine, developed by Merck, that showed promise in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2016.

Elise Takahama can be reached at elise.takahama@globe.com.