Digital artwork showing dust mites

Under attack

Scientists work to counteract some proteins’ effects

Proteins and peptides can be used for attack – for example, in venoms such as bee and wasp stings and snake bites. Bee venom delivers a dose of melittin, a 26-amino-acid peptide that inhibits several transport proteins and enzymes as well as attacking cell membranes.

Researchers in the USA are hoping to use melittin to destroy HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). The toxin is loaded into carefully tailored nanoparticles, which have molecular ‘bumpers’ attached. This means that they cannot get close to human cells but can fuse with HIV particles, which are much smaller. A similar melittin-based system could also have uses in treating cancers.

Researchers are also looking for ways to block outside agents that trigger an overreaction from our immune system. Asthma attacks, for instance, are often triggered by proteins found in dust mite excrement.

The main culprit is an enzyme that attacks the lining of the lungs. A drug in development is designed to block the enzyme action and could prevent asthma developing in those exposed to the protein.

Lead image:

Digital artwork showing dust mites, produced using computer software. Scanning electron micrographs were used as an artist’s reference.

Wellcome Images

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Proteins’ in January 2014.

Cell biology, Medicine, Health, infection and disease, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development