News / Press Release

Precision Medicine Sets Sail; NSRRC to Send Virus-Like Particles to Space
Virus-Like Particles to Space
Under the prolonged period of support from the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), the National Synchrotron Radiation Research Center (NSRRC) is now joining hands with Japan-based Space BD and its Taiwanese general agency HelioX Cosmos Co., Ltd. on participating in the impending space experiment program at the end of 2021, which delivers “virus-like particles” of the NSRRC to the international space station for crystallization experiment through the supply vessel of the space station, and the particles will be sent back to Taiwan after almost a month of space travel in order to probe into the impact of the gravity-free environment of outer space on the crystal growth and structure of viruses.

The diversified ways of virus infection results in rapid spreading speed, which leads to discomfort, sickness, and a significant level of deaths for the hosts upon a short period of infection, such as the COVID-19 pandemic that has been ravaging the world in the last two years, as well as swine virus, fish and shrimp viruses, and avian influenza that bring terror to the breeding industry. A further understanding in the properties of viruses will be able to develop more effective pandemic-prevention technology that will reduce the threats of viruses on humans and the breeding industry.

The virus-like particles that will be traveling in the outer space this time are produced by Deputy Director Chun-Jung Chen and his research team, where molecular biology technology is adopted in mass producing high purity capsid protein that are then assembled into non-infectious virus-like particles. The virus-like particles will be sent to Japan under the escort of Space BD and HelioX Cosmos Co., Ltd., before boarding the supply vessel of the space station and heading towards the international space station.

The virus-like particles will transform into “virus-like particle crystals” and be delivered back to earth after about a month of time, and then rapidly frozen to -196°C, before sent back to Taiwan. The high-intensity X-ray and the “protein crystallography technology” of the Taiwan Photon Source (TPS) of the NSRRC will be utilized in observing the crystalline state of virus-like particles under a gravity-free environment, and comparing the differences in virus assembly and structure against the gravity environment of earth.

Chen commented, “We expect the quality of the crystal to elevate significantly under a gravity-free environment in comparison to that of general laboratories on earth, and the better the quality the structure of the virus-like particle crystal is, the higher degree of precision in the comprehensive virus particle structure is under an atomic level, where the formation of each atom in the virus can be analyzed and interpreted. The high-resolution structural information of the virus allows us to probe into the assembly and structure of viruses, as well as the key mechanism in invading the main cells of the hosts.”

Viruses are incredible ultra-microorganisms, where hundreds of capsid protein molecules are spontaneously arranged into highly symmetrical spherical virus particles that are approximately tens of nanometers in diameters, while the hollow spheres contain RNA of viral genetic inheritance.

The surface of viruses is filled with dense and apparent protrusion subunits that resemble the flamboyant outer of flowers, such as the spike protein of the coronavirus. Protrusion subunits usually portray the essential role in identifying and infecting the cells of various hosts, and act similar to a bunch of keys that open the door to viral infections in cells. An understanding to the structure of the keys will grasp on the passcode of the lives of viruses, which can be utilized to develop high-efficiency subunit vaccines.

Chen commented that using protrusion subunits as the main antigenic epitope will significantly increase the specificity of the antibody in virus identification, where specific targeted and valuable vaccines can be developed so as to enhance the effectiveness of vaccines that is useful for the research and development of new anti-virus strategies, as well as introduce new breakthroughs in precision health and pandemic-prevention technology.