Using Nanotech to Destroy Viruses
By Patrick Cox | December 30, 2009
The company is NanoViricides Inc. (OTCBB: NNVC). NanoViricides works at the interface of several scientific disciplines. It has brought together medicine, biology and chemistry to develop transformational nanotech-enabled anti-viral drugs.
NanoViricides has used new technological tools to custom build a molecular structure that can take out many different kinds of viruses. My colleague Ray Blanco and I were able to interview Dr. Eugene Seymour, NanoViricides’ CEO, at length. He kindly submitted to our extended questioning process so that you could get the inside picture regarding this transformational early-stage company.
NanoViricides’ core TheraCour (therapeutic courier) technology was invented by Dr. Anil R. Diwan. He holds a B.S. in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, India, and a Ph.D. in biochemical engineering from Rice University. He has 18 years of experience in researching biopharmaceuticals and 12 years of entrepreneurial experience. Dr. Diwan is currently the chairman and president of NanoViricides Inc.
In 2005, Diwan was joined by Dr. Eugene Seymour to found the company. They started the business to market a new class of anti-viral drugs that were based on Diwan’s prior research and intellectual property. Seymour also has a long history in virus research. He was, in fact, a pioneer in the early 1980s, working on the newly appeared disease we now know as HIV.
As an internist practicing immunology when the pandemic began, Seymour treated some of the first patients identified with the virus. He tells us that it was a grueling four-year struggle to figure out what was going on while his patients were dying. In 1989, he founded StatSure, where he led the development of a rapid HIV blood test that gained approval in several countries including Canada, the U.K. and Vietnam. Later, he became a consultant for the U.N. Global Program on AIDS and set up HIV testing programs in several countries.
NanoViricides’ Viral Monkey Wrench
When Diwan and Seymour first founded NanoViricides, they began working on a drug, called HIVCide, that would destroy the HIV virus. Then, the emergence of the widely feared avian flu changed their plans. New drugs were controlling the progression of HIV, while influenza represented a huge untapped market.
Realizing that the flu virus could be attacked with the same basic technology they had developed for HIV, they broadened their focus to other types of viruses. They engineered a variation of their HIV-busting technology called FluCide. This anti-viral drug targets type A influenza, which causes hundreds of thousands of deaths per year.
To understand how their technology works, we need to spend just a little time talking about viruses.
Influenza and other viruses consist of three basic parts. The first is the “payload” at the heart of the virus. In the case of the flu, this payload is RNA. The payload could also be DNA, depending on the type of virus. This genetic material is encased in a protein shell called a capsid. The capsid, in turn, is encased in an envelope, which the virus acquires when it bursts out of an infected cell. This envelope is coated with proteins so that it attaches to a healthy cell, allowing the virus to infect it.
When infected by the flu virus, it normally takes two-three weeks to develop enough immunity to beat back the infection. Since we build up an immune “memory” against particular viral strains, we usually can’t catch one again. However, the flu virus mutates very rapidly. New strains can defeat the immune system.
Before founding NanoViricides, it had occurred to Diwan that there were no truly effective treatments for viral infections. What he created in response is nothing short of a stroke of genius. In applying his knowledge of chemistry and molecular engineering, Diwan treated this problem from a whole new approach and made a great leap forward.
How NanoViricides Kills Viruses
Originally, NanoViricides had intended to carry a drug inside the TheraCour molecule that would attack the virus. Subsequently the company discovered that this was unnecessary. Diwan realized that viruses coat themselves with a membrane that causes them to attach themselves to healthy cells. He also realized that if a structure could be created with characteristics of the virus’s usual target cells, it could fuse to the virus. That process causes the outer membrane of the virus to break down. The capsid streams out, without infecting a cell.
The mere act of attaching to the virus and fusing with its protein coat renders it inert. Since the capsid is unable to infect a cell on its own, the eviscerated virus is then rendered harmless. It can no longer attack any healthy cells.
Dr. Diwan’s revolutionary new drug consists of a base molecule with a number of specialized proteins on its surface. The base molecule, called a nano-micelle, has a spherical shape. Attached to the surface of this “nano-ball” are special proteins designed to specifically neutralize a particular virus. These proteins can be very specialized and targeted, such as for HIV. On the flip side, they can be very broad and generic, such that one can be used as a general-purpose drug that can take out herpes, influenza and other illnesses.
In essence, the nano-micelle developed by NanoViricides mimics the outer surface of the cell. Think of this outer surface as the teeth of a gear. The way a virus attaches to the cell is by having another gear with teeth that perfectly mesh with the cellular gears. When the teeth mesh, it is molecular Velcro. By design, the nano-micelle acts as a perfect decoy for the human cell because the protein profile on its outer surface “fools” the virus into attaching to it instead. The drug throws a molecular “monkey wrench” into the virus’ machinery.
What NanoViricides has done is create a broad-spectrum anti-viral drug that targets all type A influenza, regardless of the strain. Unlike flu vaccines that have to be modified for every new virus strain appearing in the wild, FluCide doesn’t “care.” Since all strains of type A influenza have the same basic properties, it is capable of destroying them all. This not only includes the garden- variety seasonal flu, but also newer variants such as bird and swine flu. It’s the anti-viral equivalent of a nuclear bomb.
Dr. Seymour says a patient treated with FluCide within 24-48 hours of infection simply won’t get sick. If he weren’t getting grants and recognition from other scientists in the field, I might have concluded that he was lying. This is a huge transformational technology.
There are other anti-viral drugs on the market, of course. But NanoViricides’ approach is unique. All the other anti-viral drugs on the market work in different phases of the virus life cycle. For example, one major type actually does remove the viral coating, but only after it enters the cell. Other types act inside the actual cell at the transcription or assembly phase of the virus life cycle. The popular anti-viral drug Tamiflu and swine flu drug Virenza work by preventing the viruses from exiting an infected cell.
Unlike these existing drugs, however, NanoViricides’ technology acts before the virus has had a chance to gain entry into a healthy cell. This is like defeating a besieging enemy army with withering fire before it’s forced the city gates or undermined the defensive walls. The alternative methods used today are the equivalent of a last-ditch house-to-house battle after the defenses have been breached.
These current anti-viral drugs have other drawbacks. They are expensive and resistance develops as the virus mutates. There is also toxicity.
More than 99% of seasonal flu viruses have developed resistance to Tamiflu, according to the CDC. Unlike such drugs, NanoViricides has found no evidence of toxicity or resistance in animal trials. There is no mechanism by which resistance can develop against NanoViricides’ technology. If the surface proteins on the virus mutate away from the ability of the nano-micelle to attach to them, they have also mutated away from the ability to attach to the surface of a human cell. The viruses don’t have a chance.
The Viral Equivalent of Penicillin
Just as penicillin ushered in a new age of antibiotic drugs against bacterial infections, I believe NanoViricides’ revolutionary technology will do the same for virus therapies.
Moreover, NanoViricides has many potential targets for its technology. Currently, it has focused its initial work on herpes, HIV and influenza. The reason for choosing these three is that 95% of all human viruses should be covered by these three versions of NanoViricides’ basic technology. Work is being done with NanoViricides’ drugs at research hospitals, universities and veterinary schools.
For example, the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine has confirmed the effectiveness of its drugs in treating herpes and adenoviruses. This past August, it demonstrated a 99.99% reduction in herpes viral loads in vitro. Southern Research Institute is going to be doing further in vitro research with the NanoViricides drug, and LSU is going to be doing further research in vivo.
Here, NanoViricides sees three major opportunities: eyedrops to eradicate herpes of the eye and topical creams for herpes cold sores and genital herpes. These particular delivery methods don’t destroy the virus in the body, but they do treat flare-ups. It also wants to destroy the herpes virus in its hideout inside the nerve roots and is working on delivery methods.
Next on the list is HIV. In 2008, spectacular results were announced for HIVCide in Israel. Based on the findings there, it was suggested that the company had attained a “functional cure.” This is due to the drug’s ability to decrease the amount of circulating virus and to suppress the virus exiting infected cells in which it was sequestered. HIVCide should allow an affected person to live an essentially normal life, as virus load is so low that the virus cannot be transmitted.
Another possible delivery method for the NanoViricides technology is a skin patch. Since the actual HIV drug is only 20 nanometers across, it should be able to easily pass the transdermal barrier. The goal is to administer an initial loading dose intravenously and then treat the virus over the long term with skin patches. Delivery methods for other viral targets include nasal sprays, bronchial inhalers, intramuscular and — as I mentioned — intravenous injections.
Many government agencies are currently working with NanoViricides in testing the technology. The Walter Reed Army medical research institute is evaluating drugs for the Ebola and Marburg viruses. It is also getting ready to start on dengue. Since it is in the same family of viruses, dengue is a steppingstone to hepatitis C treatment. It also has an HIV program on contract at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology.
The government of Vietnam has already tested its experimental rabies offering. It was able to salvage 30% of animals that received the treatment. Subsequent trials verified the initial results. The Centers for Disease Control picked up on this and started a large-scale animal study. NanoViricides is also working with the World Wildlife Fund to deliver the Ebola drug to gorillas by blowgun. About 5,000 members of this endangered species died from Ebola in 2002-2003.
The participation of several military medical research institutes underscores the probability that NanoViricides’ approach would be very useful against biological warfare agents. A broad-spectrum anti-viral cocktail could protect against many potential agents in a short time while the bioweapon was analyzed and a more targeted drug could be created. NanoViricides is working with the Department of Defense on this. Upon identifying the exact composition of the biological warfare agent, NanoViricides could then rapidly develop a more targeted drug to neutralize it.
Like a computer operating system, NanoViricides’ modular nano-micelle allows other players to write specific applications for it for less-widespread viruses, simply by designing the right protein connectors to attach to the surface.
The company has demonstrated astonishing early-stage effectiveness for a revolutionary drug with widespread applicability.
Recommendation: buy NanoViricides Inc. (OTCBB:NNVC).