Whitney Palmer

Healthcare. Politics. Family.

Turning yucky mucus into a better barrier

Published in the Feb. 28, 2011, Raleigh News & Observer and the Feb. 28, 2011, Charlotte Observer


CHAPEL HILL — A North Carolina researcher is looking to turn the yucky, sticky quality of mucus into a positive force to fight disease.

Sam Lai, an infectious disease researcher at the UNC-Chapel Hill Eshelman School of Pharmacy, recently received $100,000 from the Gates Foundation to study whether mucus that lines certain membranes and is the body’s initial defense against disease can be altered to trap virus particles and prevent illness.

“We know viruses cross through mucus to cause infection,” Lai said. “We know very little about how they do this, though, and trying to fight a virus once it’s infected the body is like trying to defend a castle from the inside after you’ve left the gate unlocked.”

Twice a year, the Gates Foundation awards grants for innovative research that will change approaches to global health.

Samuel Lai received $100,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study the relationship between viruses and mucus.

Successful projects can apply for an additional $1 million in funding.


Although viruses can spread through blood or damaged skin, most transmit through mucosal membranes in the lungs, stomach and reproductive tract. A mesh framework, similar to a 3D spider web, gives mucus its stretchy, stringy nature.

Lai will use the funding to try to tighten the mesh’s weave or make it stickier to prevent virus particles from passing through to the body. He said he hopes the research will reveal a new way to block the flu virus, as well as herpes and HIV.

“We’ll collect mucus secretion samples from human donors and place infected viruses in those secretions,” he said. “This way, we can look at the virus’s real-time mobility to see when the mucus becomes impenetrable.”

Richard Cone, a Johns Hopkins University biophysics professor working with Lai, said he is confident the research will succeed, but a big challenge to making mucus a solid barrier against infection is the ability of viruses to adapt and be modified.

“Viruses evolve, and this will be a particular hurdle as we look to block HIV,” Cone said. “Up until now, we’ve been fighting the HIV virus in its previous generation form. It’s a rapidly changing creature.”


To read the Raleigh News & Observer story online: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/02/28/1018706/turning-yucky-mucus-into-a-better.html

To read the Charlotte Observer story online: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2011/02/27/2097526/turning-yucky-mucus-into-a-better.html


February 28, 2011 - Posted by | Science | , , , , , , , , , ,

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