Trapping viruses with red blood cells

Did you know that erythrocytes (that’s a fancy name for red blood cells) don’t have DNA? While most of the cells in the human body have a nucleus containing DNA, the red blood cell lacks the cellular machinery required to repair or replicate itself.

Red blood cells are responsible for transporting oxygen from our lungs through our bloodstream and around our body. It achieves this thanks to the presence of an iron-rich protein called hemoglobin. The lack of a nucleus appears to allow the cell to maintain its unique shape (which aids diffusion) and contain more hemoglobin (and thus transport more oxygen).

One fascinating side-effect of all this is that it makes red blood cells a difficult target for viruses. The primary function of a virus is to get into a host cell and turn it into a factory to make lots of new viruses. The fact that red blood cells lack DNA and its replication machinery means that it cannot be coopted by viruses to fulfil this function. If a virus ends up inside a red blood cell, it can’t replicate and do further damage.

This property of red blood cells resulted in a number of studies by Dr. Robert Finberg into whether you could trick viruses into invading red blood cells. Dr Finberg and his team engineered red blood cells to have proteins from other cells on their surface. This would result in the viruses entering the red blood cells, where they would not be able to achieve their goal of replicating themselves. While the traps were able to improve outcomes, they were not able to completely eradicate the infection. However, the understanding of which proteins were able to attract and trap viruses will help us to continue to develop better anti-viral treatments for patients.

About Jack Simpson

Graduate researcher working in the field of computational biology at the Australian National University. I love writing (both articles and software), learning more about the world around us, and beekeeping.

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