A new scientific breakthrough points to a new way of treating the Hepatitis C virus, which infects 170 million people worldwide. Researchers at the University of Florida have created nanorobots that can attack the very mechanism of viral replication. It acts on a cellular level as a tiny particle destroys the mechanism that reproduces the proteins related to the disease.

The virus is destroyed by a particle called a nanozyme, the surface of which is made up of two main biological components. The first is an enzyme that destroys mRNA, the carrier of the genetic recipe of the disease-related protein. The other part is the intelligence of the system, a DNA oligonucleotide that identifies the material and instructs the enzyme to destroy the carrier of the protein code.

The main current treatment option for sufferers of hepatitis C, which can lead to scarring and cirrhosis of the liver and for which no vaccine is yet available, involves a grueling 48-week regime of Interferon and Ribavirin, with success rate of just below 50 percent. The combination therapy can cause debilitating side effects in patients, and some even have to quit treatment due to anemia, depression and and extreme fatigue. The nanotherapy also tackles the side effect issue: because it does not trigger the body’s defense mechanisms, the possibility of adverse reactions is greatly reduced.

But it’s not only hepatitis C that can be treated with nanotherapy. Lead researcher Dr. Chen Liu said the new technology can have broad application because it can target any gene researchers want, such as cancer and other viral infections. “This opens the door to new fields so we can test many other things. We’re excited about it,” Liu said.

Nanoparticle technologies are already being used in medical treatments, especially in genetic testing and to help determine genetic markers of diseases. The researchers say they could hail a new age in medicine because nanorobots can enter diseased cells only, targeting only the specified disease process but leaving healthy cells unharmed. What’s more, therapies could be delivered in pill form. In the case of this particular nanoparticle, further safety testing is needed.

Details of the research appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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