A cutting-edge discovery made by Biola University’s School of Science, Technology and Health students and faculty shows that molecular nanomachines can destroy viruses. The pandemic emphasized a need for new ways to combat viruses leading to two Biola professors conceptualizing a technique that resulted in advancement on how to treat viruses beyond vaccines and defense mechanisms.

Image shows an illustration of the nanomedicine technology

In early 2020, Biola professors Dr. Richard Gunasekera and Dr. Don Galbadage started researching how to use nanomachines to kill viruses. The research was made possible with the help of nanomachines provided by Dr. James Tour’s lab at Rice University in Houston, Texas. Alumna Marisa Arthur (’21) joined the research team in Fall 2020 as a student and received a first-place award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Feb. 20 for her work on the project.

“Just to take a step into the field of nanomedicine in virology that is so unknown still is quite significant,” said Arthur, now a full-time research assistant in nanomedicine at Biola.

Arthur, along with current biochemistry majors Grace Oh and Tianna Bitz, confirmed that “molecular nanomachines” can effectively destroy viruses, a breakthrough discovery made during their Nanomedicine and Genomics Summer Research Internship at Biola.

Biola’s advancement will allow for another way to treat multiple viruses and step toward finding a new way to rid viruses that infect humans by using nanotechnology and the field of nanomedicine, making it less invasive.

Since early 2020, Principal Investigator Gunasekera, research professor of science, technology and health, has led a group of scientists and students testing the hypothesis that these tiny machines can also destroy viruses, similar to their previous research shown to kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

This concept provided evidence that nanomachines can destroy viruses by damaging them. These nanomachines are light-activated, which, once exposed to a certain wavelength of light, spin at high speeds. The levels at which they spin are fast and strong enough to open up the cell membranes and tissues. Each trial tested how long the nanomachines needed to be exposed to light in order to show significant results.

“We turned on the light for a minimum of 15 minutes and at 15 minutes these nanomachines are able to destroy all of the viruses that are present,” said Arthur.

With ongoing and previous research conducted by Gunasekera and expertise from Galbadage, associate professor of public health, the Biola research group of professors and students were able to use biomedical model systems to test the nanomachines in viruses. Experiments were conducted using viruses called bacteriophages, which can infect bacteria since human studies are usually not conducted in basic in-vitro studies. The goal here was to test their nanomedicine methodologies in other hosts with the long-term goal to apply this technology for other viruses such as human papillomavirus (HPV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), coronaviruses and others. Multiple experiments were conducted to see the level of success in this particular study.

“We have tested the nanomachines in more than one way, so we now have several lines of evidence to show that our virus is truly destroyed,” said Gunasekera. “We have tested it in the solid phase; then we’ve tested it at the liquid phase; and we've maintained the experiments for 24 hours, but the virus did not come back – which showed that they were completely destroyed by the nanomachines and not just inhibited.”

This discovery highlights the importance of nanotechnology within the medical field. As infections become more rampant, technology is advancing to accommodate rapidly changing diseases. The ultimate goal of nanomedicine is to be able to eradicate invasive procedures, essentially allowing the scientist to reach the pinpoint of the disease at the molecular level, and then provide healing within the body.

"Nanomachines could potentially be used as a treatment for viral infections. So, for example, when a person is infected with a virus, we could use these light-activated nanomachines to kill these viruses," said Galbadage. "The nanomachines are not specific to a particular virus; meaning, if it works against one particular kind of virus, it would work against other kinds of viruses as well."

The next step for researchers at Biola is discovering the exact way the nanomachines work against the viruses. Since the machines are nano (10-9), meaning that they are very small and impossible to see with the naked eye, it is difficult to see what is truly occurring to the virus as it is being attacked by the nanomachines. The killing is evident, but the mechanism of action is yet to be determined, which is what the researchers at Biola are working on now.

The winning Biola research presentation delivered by Arthur as the first author of the research submitted received first place in the area of undergraduate Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The research will be published in the academic journal, Science.

This research was partially funded by the Roth Family and Discovery Institute.

Learn more about Biola University’s School of Science, Technology and Health.

Written by Dalet Valles, University Communications Copywriter Intern. For more information, please email media.relations@biola.edu.