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Virus Capsid Geometry

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Jordana Cepelewicz, 19 Jul 2017, Quanta Magazine, The Illuminating Geometry of Viruses, here. They always seem to swing for the fences to get a vaccine or a cure for something, rather than just determining organization and structure.

More than a quarter billion people today are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV), the World Health Organization estimates, and more than 850,000 of them die every year as a result. Although an effective and inexpensive vaccine can prevent infections, the virus, a major culprit in liver disease, is still easily passed from infected mothers to their newborns at birth, and the medical community remains strongly interested in finding better ways to combat HBV and its chronic effects. It was therefore notable last month when Reidun Twarock, a mathematician at the University of York in England, together with Peter Stockley, a professor of biological chemistry at the University of Leeds, and their respective colleagues, published their insights into how HBV assembles itself. That knowledge, they hoped, might eventually be turned against the virus.

Their accomplishment has gained further attention because only this past February the teams also announced a similar discovery about the self-assembly of a virus related to the common cold. In fact, in recent years, Twarock, Stockley and other mathematicians have helped reveal the assembly secrets of a variety of viruses, even though that problem had seemed forbiddingly difficult not long before.

Their success represents a triumph in applying mathematical principles to the understanding of biological entities. It may also eventually help to revolutionize the prevention and treatment of viral diseases in general by opening up a new, potentially safer way to develop vaccines and antivirals.

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