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"Game-Changing" Molecule Derived From Sugar Can Kill Viral Infections


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockFeb 6 2020, 15:47 UTC

Artistic impression of a Zika virus, a pathogen that can be killed on contact by this newly engineered molecule. RCSB Protein Data Bank (CC BY 4.0)

Researchers have developed a sweet new antiviral agent derived from sugar that destroys viruses on contact. It’s still early days for the research, but the "game-changing" molecule holds some potential to fight against viral outbreaks. 

Reported in the journal Science Advances, researchers engineered the new molecule from cyclodextrins, a family of natural glucose derivatives that hold broad-spectrum antiviral properties and a bunch of other handy characteristics.


Viruses are a real pain to kill, especially once they’ve set up camp in a host. Most antivirals actually just slow down their growth. Many true “virucidal” substances, such as bleach, can be effective at destroying viruses on contact but are equally capable of killing human cells too.

This new molecule, however, is able to overcome this problem. Experiments carried out in a petri dish and live mice showed that the agent was able to kill HIV, herpes simplex virus, respiratory syncytial virus, dengue, and Zika. On top of that, viruses appeared to find it difficult to gain resistance to the molecule, a common problem with many current antiviral treatments. The sugar-derived molecule is also biocompatible and shows no signs of being toxic to living tissue.

“We have successfully engineered a new molecule, which is a modified sugar that shows broad-spectrum antiviral properties,” Dr Samuel Jones from the University of Manchester and Dr Valeria Cagno, a researcher at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine, said in a joint statement. 


“The antiviral mechanism is virucidal meaning that viruses struggle to develop resistance. As this is a new type of antiviral and one of the first to ever show broad-spectrum efficacy, it has potential to be a game-changer in treating viral infections.” 

As noted, much more research is needed before we fully understand how effective this molecule is in real-world situations. However, so far, it’s looking promising. The molecule has been patented and a company has been established to get this treatment out of the lab and onto chemists’ shelves. The researchers say they can easily imagine using the molecule in treatments such as topic creams, ointments, or nasal sprays for viral infections. 

There are also higher hopes that it could be used in the battle against new emerging viral threats.


“We developed a powerful molecule able to work against very different viruses, therefore, we think this could be game-changing also for emerging infections,” added Professor Caroline Tapparel from UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and Professor Francesco Stellacci from EPFL, two senior authors of the study.

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