The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has claimed more than 1200 lives since February and has infected thousands more. Countries such as Nigeria and Liberia have declared health emergencies, while the World Health Organization discuss ways to battle the outbreak. There is no known vaccine, treatment, or cure for Ebola, which is contracted through the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal. But that doesn’t mean there’s not hope. In fact, Chemical Engineering Chair Thomas Webster’s lab (NorthEastern University) is currently working on one possible solution for fighting Ebola and other deadly viruses: nanotechnology.
“It has been very hard to develop a vaccine or treatment for Ebola or similar viruses because they mutate so quickly,” explained Webster, the editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Nanomedicine. “In nanotechnology we turned our attention to developing nanoparticles that could be attached chemically to the viruses and stop them from spreading.”
One particle that is showing great promise is gold. According to Webster, gold nanoparticles are currently being used to treat cancer. Infrared waves, he explained, heat up the gold nanoparticles, which, in turn, attack and destroy everything from viruses to cancer cells, but not healthy cells.
Recognizing that a larger surface area would lead to a quicker heat-up time, Webster’s team created gold nanostars. “The star has a lot more surface area, so it can heat up much faster than a sphere can,” Webster said. “And that greater surface area allows it to attack more viruses once they absorb to the particles.” In addition to the gold nanostars, Webster’s lab is also generating a nanoparticle that would serve as a “virus decoy,” chemically attracting the virus to attack it rather than healthy cells.