Viral infections are pesky, sneaky things. The infectious agents that cause maladies like influenza, HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C and Ebola hijack living cells and replicate, making it hard to destroy them without also harming an organism’s cells. And, they mutate to find new ways to attack cells.
Erez Livneh and his small team at Vecoy Nanomedicines have come up with a crafty way of tricking viruses to hijack nanotraps instead of human cells, and they think it could change the way viral infections are treated.
In Livneh’s mind, treatment of viral infections is “probably one of the biggest unmet needs in biomedicine to this day.” Vaccines, for their part, have come a long way in preventing the spread of infection — but that’s for the few that scientists have successfully developed and commercialized.
“For most viruses, we don’t have any vaccine or have partial vaccines,” Livneh explained. “Usually when you have a virus, the doctor doesn’t know exactly what you’re suffering from, so the diagnostic is not so great either.”
The reason it’s been so hard to develop effective vaccines and anti-viral drugs is because viruses are so adaptive, evolving and mutating to attack host cells, and they take otherwise healthy human cells hostage. Anti-viral treatments that are in use today, like HIV/AIDS cocktails, do not actually destroy viruses. Rather, they penetrate cells that have been infected by viruses to keep them from multiplying. They also tend to come with some pretty detrimental side effects.
But that kind of damage control is completely different from what Vecoy is doing. Vecoy’s technology aims to trap viruses before they infiltrate cells, while they’re still floating idly in the bloodstream without any motion or reproductive capabilities. To do that, it uses a new approach of virus-traps, or artificial nanoparticles structured in a way that their exterior resembles that of human cells.
Once these camouflaged nanoparticles are put into the bloodstream of a person with a viral infection, they lure and absorb free-floating viruses. On they’ve captured their prey, the nanparticles break down the viruses and disarm them.
Or at least that’s what Vecoy thinks will happen based on its lab studies, which right now are done with cells, mice and insects
. So far, the technology has demonstrated the ability to eliminate 97 percent of viruses in culture. The goal, according to Livneh, is to push viral eradication beyond 99.9 percent.
Even though that still wouldn’t make it a cure for a viral infection, there’s a lot of value in reducing the number of viruses in the body by that much, he noted. When a person catches a virus, the immune system fights back and actually destroys a lot of viruses. However, because viruses reproduce exponentially, the immune system eventually becomes overwhelmed.
Vecoy’s technology, according to Livneh, would help the immune system destroy as many viruses as possible before those viruses can infect cells.
Doctors call that “lowering the viral load.”
“For some (viruses), we speculate that lowering the load beyond a certain threshold would enable to immune system to overcome infection,” Livneh said. “In other cases, the patients will be bettered, not cured.”
He said the
Vecoys — short for virus decoys — could be either virus-specific or multipurpose. Further, they could potentially complement existing anti-viral therapies that target viruses already inhabiting cells. Similar concepts are also being explored at a company called NanoViricides and a few different universities.
Vecoy’s technology is a byproduct of Livneh’s creative thinking and labwork. The biologist and bioinformatician had been working on it for a while but grew confident enough to start a company after completing the 10-week Graduate Studies Program at Singularity University back in 2010.
While the majority of his colleagues remain in the company’s R&D lab in Israel, Livneh and one other team member have taken up residence at the Boston accelerator MassChallenge to focus on raising a $5 million Series A.
“Once we do raise that amount, we are looking at about three more years of animal studies before we can be sure that we are very efficacious and safe so we could start clinical trials,” he said.
In the meantime, is working with the agriculture company Enzootic Ltd. to deploy its virus traps to fight viruses in shrimp and lobsters. The ultimate goal, though, remains to fight deadly human diseases.
“A single viral pandemic agent could completely change the world as we know it,” Livneh said. “In 1918 a strain of influenza caused between 40 million and 100 million people to die. If that happened today, we could see people dying in the billions.”
[Image credit: Vecoy Nanomedicines]