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New research aims to create ‘Trojan virus’ that can destroy viruses after infection

Illustration of coronavirus spike ball in front of double helix
Image by Pete Linforth

Vaccines are the best method of preventing viral diseases. But vaccines don’t help those who are already sick, and many viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, have limited treatment options once contracted by a host. 

Washington State University researcher Michael Phelps is working on a completely new way to fight viral infections thanks to a $600,000 Trailblazer Award for New and Early-Stage Investigators from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Phelps, an assistant professor in WSU’s Department of Animal Sciences, will use the grant to create a kind of doppelganger of deadly viruses that can hunt down and kill the original virus.

A virus infects hosts, including humans, by entering the body and injecting its viral genes into host cells, which then produce more virus. Using genome editing technology called CRISPR, Phelps plans to create what he terms a ‘Trojan virus’ that sneaks into host cells and destroys those viral genes, essentially killing the disease-causing virus. At the same time, the ‘Trojan virus’ copies itself to spread the treatment to new cells. 

“We can place CRISPR technology into a coronavirus that’s had most of its genetic material removed and train it to kill other coronaviruses,” Phelps said. 

Closeup of Michael Phelps
Michael Phelps

This works much differently from traditional vaccines that train the body to create antibodies, which then fight an invading virus.

If successful, the ‘Trojan virus’ could potentially act like a real virus and spread from infected cell to infected cell, acting as a self-propagating virus therapy.

“This is a high risk, high reward grant, we don’t know for sure if this will work,” Phelps said. “It sounds like science fiction, but if it works, it could have a huge impact on fighting off future pandemics.”

“This new technology wouldn’t replace vaccines—those are still the best way to combat pandemics,” he added. “It could be used as a treatment for someone who is already infected, to stop the virus from replicating in the host. We don’t have good treatment technology now, and this could be the answer to that problem.”

The current grant will allow Phelps and a post-doctoral researcher to start experiments in cultured cells and mice in a very controlled lab environment. If successful, then a larger grant would be needed to expand to human therapies.

“This isn’t right around the corner, but it is something completely new,” Phelps said. “I’m excited to start working on it and see if we can make a difference in people’s lives.”

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