Glycelles: New Technology Attacks Pathogens at the Micro Level

June 2014
Topics: Disease Transmission, Public Health (General), Biotechnology
MITRE researchers have developed an easy-to-use technology for combating biohazards—such as viruses, bacteria, and chemical or biological attack agents—that could have applications in the commercial and public health worlds.

Imagine a toolkit that collects and removes deadly pathogens the way sticky tape pulls lint off fabric. That's the idea behind a new tool in the fight against bio-threats.

For the last decade, scientists in MITRE's bio-nanotechnology research group have explored how pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, behave, how they can be removed from a surface, and how we can prevent these harmful agents from infecting the human body. Our researchers are trying to solve a variety of problems—from removing pathogens and biotoxins from our water supplies to improving our ability to fight infections.

For example, MITRE scientist Elaine Mullen notes, "Bacteria mutate more quickly than human cells do and are constantly becoming resistant to the antibiotics we develop to defeat them. However, bacteria must bind to sugar receptors on human cells to cause an infection and, one advantage of the disparity in our mutation rates is that no matter how fast bacteria evolve, the human sugar coating is pretty stable."

Mullen and a MITRE team developed glycelles—micro particles coated with specific human carbohydrates that bind to adhesive proteins on pathogen surfaces. They can collect and sweep harmful agents from a surface, a suspension, or an organism. Each glycelle coating binds with a particular set of pathogens and biotoxins, such as Salmonella and E. coli, ricin, or the avian flu.

"A glycelle gathers the pathogens in the same way masking tape gathers lint from clothing," explains James Klemic, director of MITRE's Bio-Nanotechnology Lab. "We can carefully engineer the glycelles so the pathogens will selectively bind or stick to them."

Toolkits for Preventing Deadly Infection

MITRE recently conducted a research project that produced glycelles modified to collect Ebola from cell cultures and serum samples during early stages of infection. Government virologists will evaluate the effectiveness of using glycelles and their Ebola-binding coating to harvest virus samples from cell cultures during vaccine production.

This work comes as West Africa is suffering a deadly Ebola outbreak. The disease, which is often symptom-free for a few days after infection, quickly penetrates the human body, causing internal and external bleeding, diarrhea, and vomiting. The results of MITRE's effort "provided a demonstrable example of the flexibility of this toolkit to address the specific needs of a sponsor for a really scary application," Klemic says, adding that up to 90 percent of people who contract Ebola die from it.

Flexibility Is Key to Glycelles' Potential

Mullen's many years of innovative research in pathogen-capture films has gone into the development of both the SugarBind database and a configurable glycelle toolkit, which match pathogens with the sugars they bind to. Mullen and her team have developed glycelles to collect various pathogens. Each glycelle type is a different color. When mixed into a contaminated liquid, pathogen-coated glycelles float to the surface and can be skimmed away.

However, the concept could have more direct applications. The MITRE team members determined that when glycelles are sprayed onto dry cloth, the particles open and wrap around the cloth fibers, thus coating them with a glycoprotein film. When damp, the feathery carbohydrates radiate outward, more efficiently collecting pathogens than untreated cloth. As a coating on a cloth wipe, human carbohydrates could remove norovirus from railings and door handles. As a filter coating, they could collect Salmonella from raw milk. A glycelle cocktail could collect several types of biotoxins and pathogens from a surface or a suspension.

Mullen and her colleagues have developed the glycelle toolkit as part of a MITRE-funded research effort. As the operator of federally funded research and development centers, we apportion a percentage of our budget to original research in support of our government sponsors.

The glycelles project has potential value to several sponsor groups, Mullen says, from collecting environmental samples, to cleaning contaminated or infected surfaces, to preventing the spread of deadly viruses.

Additionally, MITRE has made the glycelles research available through our Technology Transfer Office. To discuss licensing or collaboration activities, please contact the TTO.

——by Molly Manchenton

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