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Designer nano luggage to carry drugs to diseased cells

For the first time, scientists have succeeded in growing empty particles derived from a plant virus and have made them carry useful chemicals.

The external surface of these nano containers could be decorated with molecules that guide them to where they are needed in the body, before the chemical load is discharged to exert its effect on diseased cells. The containers are particles of the Cowpea mosaic virus, which is ideally suited for designing biomaterial at the nanoscale.

"This is a shot in the arm for all Cowpea mosaic virus technology," says Professor George Lomonossoff of the John Innes Centre, one of the authors on a paper to be published in the specialised nanotechnology scientific journal, Small.

Scientists have previously tried to empty virus particles of their genetic material using irradiation or chemical treatment. Though successful in rendering the particles non-infectious, these methods have not fully emptied the particles.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre, funded by the BBSRC and the John Innes Foundation, discovered they could assemble empty particles from precursors in plants and then extract them to insert chemicals of interest. Scientists at JIC and elsewhere had also previously managed to decorate the surface of virus particles with useful molecules.

"But now we can load them too, creating fancy chemical containers," says lead author Dr Dave Evans.

"This brings a huge change to the whole technology and opens up new areas of research," says Prof Lomonossoff. "We don't really know all the potential applications yet because such particles have not been available before. There is no history of them."

One application could be in cancer treatment. Integrins are molecules that appear on cancer cells. The virus particles could be coated externally with peptides that bind to integrins. This would mean the particles seek out cancer cells to the exclusion of healthy cells. Once bound to the cancer cell, the virus particle would release an anti-cancer agent that has been carried as an internal cargo.

Some current drugs damage healthy cells as well as the cancer, leading to hair loss and other side effects. This technology could deliver the drug in a more targeted way.

"The potential for developing Cowpea mosaic virus as a targeted delivery agent of therapeutics is now a reality," says Dr Evans.

The empty viral particles, their use, and the processes by which they are made, are the subject of a new patent filing. Management of the patent and commercialisation of the technology is being handled by PBL.

The John Innes Centre is an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).


JIC Press Office
Zoe Dunford, Tel: 01603 255111, email:
Andrew Chapple, Tel: 01603 251490, email:
Notes to Editors
Full reference: "Cowpea Mosaic Virus Unmodified Empty Virus-Like Particles Can Be Loaded with Metal and Metal Oxide." DOI: 10.1002/smll.200902135

The John Innes Centre,, is an independent, world-leading research centre in plant and microbial sciences with over 500 staff. JIC is based on Norwich Research Park and carries out high quality fundamental, strategic and applied research to understand how plants and microbes work at the molecular, cellular and genetic levels. The JIC also trains scientists and students, collaborates with many other research laboratories and communicates its science to end-users and the general public. The JIC is grant-aided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Plant Bioscience Limited (PBL) is a technology development and intellectual property management company owned in equal parts by The Sainsbury Laboratory , the John Innes Centre and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council PBL promotes the development and commercial uptake of academic research results for public use and benefit and is specialised in life sciences.

Enquiries regarding access to this technology for commercial applications should be directed to Dr. Martin Stocks

Zoe Dunford | EurekAlert!
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