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Science that will change our lives: Paint a virus to death

Original Article by Jamie Morton, Science Reporter, NZ Herald

An Auckland scientist has invented molecules that can attach themselves to any surface in a few minutes and modify every type of cell or virus. The potential for the technology is huge — from attacking cancer cells to protecting newborn babies.

Imagine a type of paint so versatile it could be used to detect antibodies in blood that could harm an unborn baby, combat counterfeiting, or strengthen viruses designed to ultimately kill cancers.

Professor Steve Henry did – and the biotech wonder he created, Kode, is poised to become one of New Zealand’s greatest science and commercial success stories.

In September, US company Emergent Technologies signed a multi-million-dollar deal with the award-winning AUT University scientist’s spin-out company Kode Biotech.

Within a decade, it is believed Professor Henry’s invention will be used in almost all diagnostic laboratories across the world.

The Prime Minister’s chief science adviser, Sir Peter Gluckman, described it as impressive and world-class.

“This is highly innovative and clearly it’s got a broad range of applications.”

So what is it?

Professor Henry describes it as a paint – but of a very special kind.

A biological surface, or biosurface, is the outside layer on anything alive and is used by cells, viruses and bugs to communicate with each other and their environment – including us.

“Biosurfaces are also what the body recognises to fight infections or what infections use to recognise us,” he told the Herald.

His technology could either add a biological surface to something not living, or paint living surfaces with both biological and non-biological components.

It could be employed, for instance, to paint a biological substance used for detecting a disease on to plastic or glass, which could then be used in blood testing.

“Or it could be used to paint a glow-in-the-dark label – a fluorescent marker – on to cells and viruses, so a researcher could watch where a cell or virus goes in the body,” he said.

“In simple terms, it can add virtually any biological or non-biological material on to almost any living or synthetic surface, in just a few minutes.”

All that was required was to contact a cell, virus or surface with a solution containing the Kode molecules, and they could spontaneously self-insert, attach or assemble on the surface.

“Nothing more is required other than simple contact, and once on the surface, they don’t wash off.”

Professor Henry invented Kode while trying to mimic a natural phenomenon, where a special molecule in the blood naturally “paints” the blood cell membrane.

“With my background in transfusion laboratory medicine, I studied these natural molecules for about 15 years, then I had the idea that maybe I could use these molecules to make biological paint.

“After five more years of research, we managed to make the first synthetic versions and they worked – Kode technology was born.”

Over the next decade, Professor Henry and his colleagues would prove the molecules he invented could harmlessly modify every type of cell or virus they tried, and they could attach virtually anything on to them.

More recently, they discovered they could modify even non-living surfaces, such as glass, plastic, paper, and metals.

“One of the most intriguing things about this technology is that while [these] molecules dissolve in water when they come in contact with a surface they don’t wash off.”

No other technology could modify virtually any surface with virtually any compound.

Users could have total control over the amount of material they want applied to a surface, and because its constructs dissolved in water, they were biologically harmless when modifying living cells or creatures.

The speed it worked at was just as remarkable.

It took just seconds to modify a synthetic surface and less than an hour for a live surface.

In some instances, it could be used instead of genetic engineering – while it took months to modify a gene, modification with Professor Henry’s technology took minutes.

Ultimately, he saw his invention as a blank canvas, limited only by the imagination of the user.

One of the research tools developed from it was being used to label and then watch cells and viruses as they travelled around in the body.

It had also been used to make cells attach to surfaces, neutralise toxins and antibodies, and even prevent viruses from causing infections.

The major US research group Mayo Clinic recently published a study which used it to make viruses, ultimately used to kill cancers, survive longer in the body.

In New Zealand, AUT University uses it to train students with all the different type of blood reactions they will encounter in clinical practice.

Emergent Technologies is now pursuing it for commercial opportunities in areas as wide-ranging as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, anti-counterfeiting, tissue bioprinting, bioimaging and advanced nanofibres.

Some specific examples of current commercial uses were painting blood groups on to blood cells to create quality control products, or to detect antibodies in blood that may harm an unborn baby.

Among its more interesting applications was its use as an invisible ink to combat counterfeiting.

“The power of the technology in anti-counterfeiting is that unless you know the Kode, you can’t unlock the invisible message.”

With the technology only just entering the market, he believed its momentum would build once others started to publish on its varied uses.

“We believe we are only just scratching the surface for its number of uses and applications.”