UC Berkeley and Berkeley Lab researchers create process for virus growth

A team of researchers at UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has discovered a process for creating biomolecules that could be used to mimic human tissue and potentially provide better understanding of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The team — composed of eight scientists with expertise in disciplines varying from chemical engineering to optics — developed an automated system for virus growth that they call the “self-templating assembly process.” This could have broad biomedical implications such as helping regenerative tissue material growth because the process allows them to manipulate several factors that determine the patterns formed through virus assembly process.

By varying the speed at which they pulled a sheet of glass from a saline solution containing various concentrations of the benign virus M13 — which closely resembles collagen, a protein found in skin and many other human tissues — the researchers were able to  influence the virus to create three distinct structures.

This ability to manipulate the virus into distinct structures could have serious implications for biomedical research.

“Our approach can be expanded to other biomolecules for tissue engineering and for study on disease-related protein assembly,” said Woo-Jae Chung, a post-doctoral fellow at the lab and researcher on the project, in an email.

Chung said that although the materials have not yet been tested on humans or animals, there are many diseases caused by the undesirable assembly of proteins, such as Alzheimer’s disease, and their research can be helpful in studying them.

“Our system can provide insight into what is the key factor controlling the conversion of proteins into complex assembled structures and can be helpful to elucidate the assembly mechanism,” Chung said.

While the process could assist in the effort to regenerate tissue, it cannot replace the role of stem cells in treating patients, according to Albert Keung, a UC Berkeley graduate student working in the Schaffer Lab, which is focused on engineering of stem cell and gene therapeutics.

“I don’t see that as an alternative to stem cell research — I see it as kind of complementary because these viruses can be studied because of their effects on cell growth within these materials and molecules,” he said.

While the effects of the virus’s growth and how it affects cell growth can be studied, it does not make a cell and cannot replace stem cells, Keung said.

However, Keung added that because the human body comprises many different cell types, having diverse fields of study approach the goals of stem cell research will only serve to facilitate further discoveries.

The process is so new that it has not yet been thoroughly explored for engineering synthetic materials, according to the article.

The team — which consists of interdisciplinary experts in chemical engineering, bioengineering, physics, optics and chemistry — has been working on the project for the past two years, Chung said. The group has been acquiring information about the assembly and application of M13 materials useful to biomaterials since 2006.

“I think any new technological developments, especially on the nanomicroscale, have a lot of promise for tissue development, but I think it’s somewhat down the road,” Keung said.