Research team discovers proton mechanism used by flu virus to infect cells

Nyajuok Deng

After a year and a half of research, a team led by Mei Hong discovered the proton structure the flu virus uses to infect cells.

The virus uses a shuttle mechanism to relay protons through a channel in a process necessary for the virus to infect a cell.

Hong, professor of chemistry and associate of the Ames Laboratory, led the research team, which used solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to find the structure and workings of the proton channel that connects the flu virus to a healthy cell.

“This helps us understand the virus and how it functions,” said Fanghao Hu, graduate student in chemistry, who was part of the research team.

The proton channel is an important part to the life cycle of the virus, because the virus starts by attaching and infecting a healthy cell. Once inside the healthy cell the virus uses a protein called M2 to open the channel, so protons from the healthy cell can flow through the channel. The channel then starts the release of the virus’ genetic material into the healthy cell, and the virus begins to take over the cell and replicate itself.

“It acts like a shuttle. It picks up a proton from the exterior and flips to let it get off to the interior,” Hong said.

Hong’s research team consisted of herself, Hu and Wenbin Luo, a former ISU doctoral student who is currently a research associate at Penn State.

The team’s research was funded with grants provided by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, and the findings are published in the Oct. 22 issue of Science Magazine.

Fully understanding the structure can help researchers design drugs that prevent protons from moving through the small channel.

“It will provide help for future drugs for influenza,” Hu said.