The phrase ‘Genetically Engineered Virus’ probably stirs up a lot of worry in scientists and skeptics alike. However, there are several exciting areas of research which suggest that modified viruses could have an important role to play in several areas of our society. Two crucial areas they could have amazingly positive impacts in are; cancer treatment and the collection of renewable solar energy.
Many cancers can thrive due to their ability to trigger a hampered immune response. Immune cells are unable to produce the full necessary reaction to regulate and destroy the cancerous cells.
However, viruses are much more potent at producing strong responses. Upon infection, they stimulate the release of alarmin and activate cytotoxic effector T lymphocytes (CTL(eff)); which generate a strong response in return.
Researchers’ at the University of Geneva (UNIGE) and the University of Basel are utilizing this viral response to encourage a precise and efficient reaction against cancerous cells.
Nature gives a brief overview of tumor immunology and the mechanisms by which tumor cells can evolve to avoid the immune system. They then go on to describe how researchers can go one better and regain the upper hand!
Immunotherapy’s New Approach
The collaboration produced a synthetic virus based upon the lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV); capable of producing the typical viral immune response in rodents and humans.
The LCMV was engineered to be a replication competent, stably-attenuated immunotherapy vector (artLCMV). In other words, the artLCMV delivers integrated tumorigenic antigens to dendritic cells, which in turn activate the CTLs above. artLCMV simultaneously stimulates lymphoid tissue stroma cells, responsible for expressing the alarmin interleukin-33.
Interleukin-33 amplifies the CTL(eff) response, both in magnitude and functionality, creating an inflammatory tumor microenvironment more responsive to immunomodulatory therapy; a technique thought to be the future of cancer treatment.
As a result, the large population of activated T Killer Cells (CTL(eff)) were able to target the tumorous cells precisely, due to the recognition of a specific protein on their surface, originally presented by the artLCMV. Subsequently, tumor growth and volume declined, while mouse survival was prolonged.
These results open up a new route for cancer immunotherapy, concentrating on stimulating the immune system rather than ‘disinhibiting’ it. The research also opens up further possibilities for downstream immunomodulatory therapy.
Solar Energy Providers
Engineering viruses to create enhanced photovoltaic systems
By marrying quantum physics and genetic engineering, researchers at MIT were able to produce a virus which would bind to synthetic chromophores – receptors which when hit by light produce excitons (quantum particles of energy.) By arranging these chromophores in the optimal positions, so that they have exactly the right amount of space between them, MIT researchers were able to double the speed at which the excitons traveled – known as the “Quantum Goldilocks Effect.” (Disclaimer: no porridge or bears included.)
In the future, with the addition of a reaction center to the end of the virus, it could be possible to create efficient solar cells or light-driven catalysis.
MIT describes the collection and transfer of solar energy through their modified virus below. Warning! The narrator speaks rather quickly, it may require a rewatch!