Proton mechanism used by flu virus to infect cells discovered

The flu virus uses a shuttle mechanism to relay protons through a channel in a process necessary for the virus to infect a host cell, according to a research project led by Mei Hong of Iowa State University and the Ames Laboratory.

The findings are published in the 22 October issue of the journal Science.

Hong, an Iowa State professor of chemistry and an associate of the US Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory, said her research team used solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to determine the structure and workings of the proton channel that connects the flu virus to a healthy cell.

She said a full understanding of that mechanism could help medical researchers design drugs that stop protons from moving through the channel.

That proton channel is an important part of the life cycle of a flu virus. The virus begins an infection by attaching itself to a healthy cell. The healthy cell surrounds the virus and takes it inside through a process called endocytosis. Once inside the cell, the virus uses a protein called M2 to open a channel.

Protons from the healthy cell flow through the channel into the virus and raise its acidity. That triggers the release of the virus' genetic material into the healthy cell. The virus then hijacks the healthy cell's resources to replicate itself.