Cutting-edge tool probes lethal viruses at atomic levels

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 18, 2013 09:40 hrs

London, Feb 18 (IANS) A cutting-edge technology called synchrotron light is enabling scientists to analyse lethal viruses behind AIDS, Hepatitis and flu at the atomic and molecular level, potentially opening the way to better therapies.

A synchrotron light source produces very intense pulses of light/X-rays, permitting detailed studies of objects ranging in size from human cells, through viruses down to atoms with a precision that is not possible by other means.

Scientists can study virus structures at intense levels of detail, and this new facility extends that capability to many viruses that have a major global impact on human and animal health.

Such a visualisation requires specialist microscopes 10,000 times more powerful than standard lab microscopes.

Dave Stuart, professor of structural biology at Oxford and life sciences director at Diamond Light Source, UK's national synchrontron facility, one of the only two in the world, said: "Nowhere in the world can structures be so readily solved with the speed and efficiency that is now available at Diamond."

Last year, Diamond scientists determined the structure of the virus that causes hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which can cause severe central nervous system disease in children.

Some 1.7 million cases were reported by the Chinese ministry of health during 2010, and there is no vaccine or therapy available, according to a Diamond Light statement.

An Anglo-Chinese collaboration used the facilities at Diamond to solve the structure of the Human Enterovirus 71 (EV71), which is the root cause of the disease.

Using synchrotron light, the team was able to visualise the virus in different states and collect a series of structures, from which they were able to uncover a detailed picture of the virus's actions in sequence.

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