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‘Pitstops’ can inhibit viruses

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A compound dubbed the “pitstop” has been proposed as offering a new way to defend the body against invaders such as viruses and cancers.

The joint Australian-German project is looking at cell signalling behaviours as offering the chance to block diseases that work by invading human cells.

Cell membranes have to keep nasties out, but have to be able to let nutrients in – and it is the nutrient pathway that provides the gap in defences exploited by attackers. The opening for nutrients is provided by signalling molecules, and it’s the behaviour of those signaling molecules that has attracted the attention of Professor Phil Robinson of the Children’s Medical Research Institute in Sydney, German scientists Volker Haucke of Berlin’s Freie Universität, Adam McCluskey of the University of Newcastle, and their collaborators.

A process called clathrin-mediated endocytosis (CME) regulates operations such as nutrient absorption in cells. To invade cells, viruses and other pathogens hijack the clathrin that cells use to take in nutrients, invade the cell, and then use the cells' mechanisms to replicate their own genetic material throughout the body.

The researchers say they have developed “pitstop” compounds that interfere with the absorption of pathogens such as HIV, and say that if treatments can be developed based on these “pitsops”, they could block a wide range of invaders.

“What we’ve found is a way to tackle infectious diseases and viral infections; not all of them but probably a large chunk of them,” Professor Robinson told AAP.

Defending clathrin against hijacking, Robinson says, offers a way to prevent pathogens invading the cells, rather than fighting infection after it takes place. He says the compounds that the researchers have used are simple, offering “breathtaking” scope for improvement.

The next step for the researchers will be to find out whether or not their “pitstop” compounds are safe for humans.

The abstract of their research, published in the journal Cell, is here. ®

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