Scientists create molecular cage to improve vaccines

Biochemists from UCLA recently developed a protein that changes itself into a “cage” of molecules, which holds promise for creating synthetic vaccines for the flu and HIV, among other illnesses.

The protein is so small in comparison to human cells that it may be a key new way to place pharmaceuticals into cells. Synthetic vaccines inside the proteins may mimic a human cell’s reactions, inciting the body’s immune system and better protecting vaccinated individuals from diseases.

The new protein could also help researchers create new nanoscale materials.

The protein is the largest molecular “cage” protein that scientists have created to date. The cage, created with 24 different copies of a specific protein, looks like a cube. Its large openings look like pores, which allow large protein molecules to come and go. Unfortunately the pores are so large that the protein may not be capable of serving as a type of container to place medicine directly inside the human cells.

Researchers remain hopeful about using the porous protein to deliver medicine.

"The design principles for making a cage that is more closed would be the same," Todd Yeates, chemistry and biochemistry professor at UCLA and senior researcher of the study, said.

He later explained that he wants to find ways to make the cage more stable.

Now that the researchers can create protein cages with 24 pieces, they are moving on to create the cages with 60 protein pieces, which could mean a larger “container” to deliver medicine to human cells.

Yeates is now collaborating with Peter Kwong from the National Institutes of Health to place viral antigens inside the molecular cages. The study’s lead author is Yen-Ting Lai, a postdoctoral scholar at Arizona State University and a graduate student of UCLA.

The scientists’ research is supported by the National Science Foundation and the UCLA-DOE Institute of Genomics and Proteomics. The latest findings were published in the online journal Nature Chemistry.

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Aeras National Institutes of Health

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