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Published: 2021-07-01

Molecules produced that trick viruses into attaching

NEWS Pandemics caused by viruses pose a threat to global public health. Despite this, there are very few drugs for the treatment of viral diseases. In his dissertation, Emil Johansson has developed molecules that bind to viruses and thus block the virus from infecting cells and causing disease. He defended his dissertation on Friday 21 May at Umeå University, Sweden.

Text: Ingrid Söderbergh

“The molecules that I produced were used to study the effect on viral infection of cells, as well as to evaluate and validate the potential to develop new types of antiviral drugs” says Emil Johansson, doctoral student at the Department of Chemistry at Umeå University.

Viruses are intracellular parasites that depend on infecting a host cell to multiply. This is done by the virus recognizing specific structures on the surface of the host cell and hooking on to them. This adhesion tricks the cell into letting in viruses, which on the inside release their genetic material and manipulate the cell to produce a large number of virus particles. The newly produced virus particles then leave the cell, which often results in the cell dying.

Although viruses were discovered as early as 1898, today there are only a few antiviral drugs on the market that can be used against both known and new pathogenic viruses. The consequences of this are obvious during the ongoing covid-19 pandemic caused by the coronavirus where vaccines were first developed when the pandemic was a fact.

One way of stopping viruses from infecting cells and causing disease is to block adhesion while another way is to prevent viruses from releasing their genetic material. In his dissertation, Emil Johansson has researched molecules that block these processes in Coxsackievirus A24v and Adenovirus 37. Both cause serious, but not life-threatening eye diseases.

Emil Johansson has produced molecules that mimic structures on the surface of the host cell and thus trick viruses into attaching to the molecules instead of to the surface of the cell.

“This means that adhesion does not occur and the subsequent infection does not occur. The body's own immune system can then clear away these virus particles” he explains.

Emil Johansson has also produced molecules that stabilize the virus particle and thus make it more difficult to release the genetic material and thus prevent infection.

Emil Johansson grew up in Södra Sunderbyn outside Luleå and graduated with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Umeå University in 2015 after studying the Life Science programme. Shortly afterwards, he began his doctorate in organic chemistry at Umeå University.

Read the entire dissertation

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About the dissertation:
On Friday 21 May, Emil Johansson, Department of Chemistry at Umeå University, defended his dissertation entitled: Tailored conjugates of N-acetylneuraminic acid and small molecules that block virus cell attachment and entry. The dissertation took place at 09:00 in Glasburen, KBC-huset, Umeå University. The faculty opponent was Professor Geert-Jan Boons, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Chemistry, University of Utrecht, Netherlands.