Viral Peptide May Stop Bioterrorism Agents in Their Tracks

May 31, 2007
Rebekah McCallister

Internal Medicine World Report, March 2007, Volume 0, Issue 0

Two lethal, newly recognized, and easily transferrable viruses, Hendra and Nipah, may soon be much less dangerous, findings published in the Journal of Virology (2006; 80: 9837-9849) indicate. Both viruses are potential bioterrorism agents.

Hendra and Nipah viruses are zoonotic viruses that can spread from their natural reservoir in fruit bats to larger animals, such as pigs and horses, as well as to humans.

Although the mode of transmission is not known, it is thought to be relatively easy—either through close contact with an infected host or breathing in the microscopic pathogens. Infection with either virus can lead to fatal encephalitis.

Coinvestigators Anne Moscona, MD, and Matteo Porotto, PhD, of Weill Cornell Medical College, New York City, found that by tweaking a peptide related to a third pathogen, parainfluenza virus, it might be possible to prevent the Hendra and Nipah viruses from infecting human cells.

“The goal has been to have some kind of drug like this that could be stored at key points around the world, ready for mobilization in case of an outbreak,” Dr Moscona said. “People could, theoretically, go out into the field and collect Hendra virus from bats, for example….Right now there’s absolutely nothing that can be done to stop this fatal, transmissible illness.”

Drs Moscona and Porotto knew that a receptor-binding molecule on the virus, called “G,” binds to the surface of the cell, and “this fusion molecule has to then undergo some shape changes… [that] help the virus fuse with, and enter, the cell,” explained Dr Porotto.

“Surprisingly, this peptide from the parainfluenza virus turned out to be even more effective at inhibiting Hendra virus fusion than peptides derived from the Hendra virus itself,” she said. “It also appears to do much the same thing with the Nipah virus, inhibiting fusion there too.”