Back in 2003, there was an epidemic sweeping the company flying on the backs of those tiny, lovable insects called mosquitoes. It was the culmination of several years of buildup, resulting in nearly 10,000 confirmed cases nationwide and 264 deaths.
Since then, the West Nile virus has become less of an issue, partly due to efforts to control at-risk mosquito populations, but also due to medicinal science making strong advances in keeping the virus in check. Last year, there were only 964 cases reported in the United States resulting in 41 deaths. But outside of our own borders, the disease is still an epidemic in parts of Africa, Asia and Europe.
Though much lower, that number is still not zero, so scientists are hot on the trail of developing effective vaccines for the disease. And recently, a group of researchers at Purdue University reported a large step in the right direction in a paper published in the Proceedings of that National Academy of Sciences.
Once a person is infected and survives, their body naturally develops antibodies that will ward off future infections, just like the chicken pox or measles. But not every antibody is built the same. Everyone has the potential to form their own kind of natural defense.
In this paper, Professor Michael Rossman led a team that investigated the mechanisms of CR4354, a human monoclonal antibody isolated from a patient that neutralizes the viral infection. The antibody takes a somewhat unique approach. A multitude of the antibodies attach themselves each to two points of the virus, completing an interlocking system. Once formed, its rigidity prevents the virus from changing its shape; a necessary step required for the virus to fuse with a cell’s membrane and infect it.
And to up the coolness factor a little bit, the team used a process called cryoelectron microscopy to determine the system’s structure. The technique involves flash freezing the sample in order to give it enough backbone to stand up to the large amounts of radiation required to get a good picture. In fact, a sample being scanned by an electron microscope receives the same amount of radiation as an object 20 meters away from a thermonuclear device.
If you think a biological body is going to stand up to that without a little help, well then You Don’t Know Jack.