15 July 1998

Scientists Discover World's Smallest Cooking Pots

Scientists have discovered the world's smallest "molecular cooking pot" - the round shell of a virus that has literally been emptied of the disease to provide a convenient container to transport drugs within the body. By hijacking the protein case that encapsulates the virus, they hope to fill it to order and trundle it off to the correct cellular address. And at just one thousand millionths of a metre, it gives new meaning to the term "small packet".

"The natural role for that shell is to transport [the virus]," says Mark Young of Montana State University, who along with Temple University chemist Trevor Douglas discovered how to exploit the nano-pots. "It evolved to survive in many different chemical environments. We're just hijacking nature."

The team have dubbed the shells "cooking pots" because, like any good saucepan, they have lids that open and close. Young envisions chemicals going into the pot, the lid closing, the pot zooming off to a new location, and the lid re-opening to dish out the contents.

"What you have is a container,' says Scripps Research Institute virologist Jack Johnson. "It allows you to do chemistry on an exceptionally small scale."

The most immediate application is targeted drug delivery for breast cancer treatment, where the pots are used to take medicine to the correct spot in the body.