The Zika virus, Ebola, and dengue fever often elude vaccines with their shape-shifting abilities. Strains of these viral infections rapidly mutate, so they're not only resistant to treatment but also difficult to prevent from spreading in the first place. But team of researchers from IBM and the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore may have figured out how to finally make some headway toward finding a cure. Their study, published in the journal Macromolecules, reveals it's possible to treat viruses in a unique, alternative way – from the outside in.

"Viral diseases continue to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality," said the study’s lead author Dr. Yi Yan Yang, a group leader at IBN. "We have created an anti-viral macromolecule that can tackle viruses by blocking the virus from infecting the cells, regardless of mutations. It is not toxic to healthy cells and is safe for use. This promising research advance represents years of hard work and collaboration with a global community of researchers."

Instead of trying to attack the DNA or RNA inside of the virus, which often shape-shifts and mutates into different strains, researchers targeted the glycoproteins on the outer wall of all viruses. Glycoproteins are responsible for attaching the virus to cells within the human body, enabling the virus to make us sick. So researchers designed a macromolecule, a gigantic molecule with smaller subunits within it, to fight viruses in one-two punch.

First, the macromolecule uses electrical charges to attract the virus to it. It attaches to the virus’s glycoproteins (outer shell) once it's close enough, making it impossible for the virus to attach onto and infect healthy human cells. Next, it neutralizes the virus’ acidity levels so it can't replicate within the body.

After the virus is damaged, the macromolecule releases its next punch – mannose, a type of sugar that attaches to healthy immune cells. This ultimately attracts an army of fighters to the infection in order to expedite the destruction.

"It's almost a daunting task to design any kind of therapeutic for a virus," said the study’s lead researcher Dr. James Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist at IBM Research, California, in a statement. "We began to think, how can we move forward and kind of attack the virus in a very different way? Instead of going after its RNA or DNA, we looked at the glycoproteins that surround the virus. It's kind of like honey. It's kind of sticky. We can now competitively go after this cell faster than the virus can go after your immune cell. And once we block those receptors, we prevent infection."

Hedrick believes one of the potential uses for their magic bullet molecule would be to create an antiviral soap, not unlike what you use on your hands after using the bathroom. Except instead of fighting off common cold germs, the soap would kill the Zika virus or even herpes. The implications for treatment are widespread; in which case it's a particularly alluring product for pharmaceutical companies.

That said, the treatment still has to jump through a few more hoops before it can be used as a disinfectant or medication to prevent and treat viral infections in travelers and those with compromised immune systems.

"With the recent outbreak of viruses such as Zika and Ebola, achieving anti-viral breakthroughs becomes even more important," Hedrick said in an interview with Fast Company. "We are excited about the possibilities that this novel approach represents, and are looking to collaborate with universities and other organizations to identify new applications."

Source: Yan Yang Y, Ichiyama K, and Yang C, et al. Cooperative Orthogonal Macromolecular Assemblies with Broad Spectrum Antiviral Activity, High Selectivity, and Resistance Mitigation. Macromolecules. 2016.