MSU Develops Flu Fighting Protein

Jun 8, 2012

A Michigan State University scientist is the lead author of a paper that outlines MSU's work in manufacturing a protein that's showing promise as an effective agent against serious flu viruses.  MSU performed the study in partnership with the Baker Laboratory at the University of Washington and the Wilson Lab at the Scripps Research Institute. 

Tim Whitehead is an assistant professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science as well as Biosystems Engineering at MSU.  He spoke with WKAR's Melissa Benmark about the research.

TIM WHITEHEAD: What we’ve done is taken an idea of genes that don’t exist in nature and being able to design those genes from first principles.

MELISSA BENMARK: When you say, “from first principles,” that means…

WHITEHEAD: That means that we don’t rely on hints from nature for the design of these proteins.

BENMARK: So it’s not patterned on anything that you’re familiar with in nature.

WHITEHEAD: That’s right, yeah.

BENMARK: The paper just came out in the publication “Nature Biotechnology,” actually you were the cover story, it sounds like. And the material you’ve been working on is effective against H1N1, you’re thinking, which was the outbreak in 2009 and also 1918, which was that really, really big one…as well as H5N1, which is commonly known as the bird flu virus. That sounds like a really big deal, especially coming out with something that’s potentially good against the biggest flu pandemic in the history of the United States. How big is this, do you think?

WHITEHEAD: Well, let’s just clarify for a second. We’ve tested the efficacy of these designed proteins against the H1N1 pandemic viruses, and they neutralized them with efficacy. The H5N1, and different subtypes, we suspect they’re going to work, because we can show from just simple biochemistry that they work. But we haven’t tested them.

But we’re pretty excited about the potential of these proteins in general to actually make it as a treatment for, if--God forbid--there was a pandemic in the future related to these subtypes. We think that this protein could be an effective treatment for the general populace.

BENMARK: Did you set out to come up with this as a treatment? Or did you find it in the course of working on something else?

WHITEHEAD: Well, this is the fun thing. We can design these proteins to do pretty amazing things now. So we set out to actually attack where we wanted to attack on the virus, and it incapacitated the virus the way that we set out to do that.

If you asked me at the beginning of this project if it would have worked out, I would have given it pretty low odds. Long shot at the Kentucky Derby odds. But we’re really ecstatic that it worked out as well as it did.

BENMARK: If a person was looking through advanced equipment at a flu virus, and saw this protein in the vicinity, what exactly happens? What would you actually see when it was going after the flu virus?

WHITEHEAD: The best that I can explain is that, the flu virus is absolutely a modern marvel of evolution. And there are components on the flu virus that—I don’t want to use an anthropological term, but they’re pretty smart.

So, what it can do, there’s a protein that can hijack its way into a cell. And it goes into a compartment called (an) endosome, which you can think about as a trash heap. But what happens is that, there’s a different environment in that endosome, so it can sense that, and trigger a change in the protein, that can actually put the payload of the virus into the healthy portions of the cell. So, what we’re doing is, we’re just gumming up the works.

We can bind a specific patch on this protein that changes shape to trigger this entry, and by binding it, we’re preventing it from actually doing its job. So, if you think about it, it’s almost like we’re just throwing sand in the gas tank.

BENMARK: So, what kind of a road does a discovery like this go down from here to the ending up at the business end of a needle?

WHITEHEAD: There’s a long road ahead. Not only that there’s time as well as there’s capitol. So, to go from an idea like what we have, to an actual drug, where we can manufacture it en masse, is the work of global pharmaceutical companies and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to do that. And many years. So, we’re hopeful that these proteins or proteins that look similar to these we’ve presented in this paper are going to make it, but again, it’s going to be a long road.