Faculty Voice in the News – The New York Times

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Professor William Gelbart’s research and its influence on the field of physical virology is featured in the New York Times Science Section.  The article titled “If You Squeeze the Coronavirus, Does It Shatter?” by Katherine J. Wu was published in the January 26, 2021 issue of the New York Times.  Read the article here.  In this article on “virus physics” the author interviews scientists throughout the country, several of whom acknowledge Gelbart for their inspiration and all of whom are pursuing approaches to understanding viruses that involve theoretical concepts and experimental techniques from the physical sciences. These approaches include the computer modeling of virus formation and budding from cells, single-molecule manipulation of the enzyme that replicates viral RNA, and small molecule drugs that interfere with nucleocapsid assembly. The work of Gelbart’s that is featured is his group’s collaboration with Professor Otto Yang (UCLA School of Medicine) on a novel COVID-19 vaccine that, exceptionally, consists of a mix of two different kinds of particles. One (the “T particle”) is designed to elicit a T-cell response, while the other (“B particle”) is designed to elicit a B-cell (antibody-secretion) response, with tuning of their numbers determining the relative strengths of the two responses. The T particle is a self-replicating (“replicon”) form of mRNA coding for SARS-2 T-cell antigens, protected (and targeted to antigen-presenting cells) by an in vitro reconstituted shell of capsid protein from a plant virus (CCMV). The B particle is an in vitro reconstituted empty shell of CCMV capsid protein, providing a scaffold for a regular array of intact spike proteins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  Gelbart Virus Cartoon On May 29 2020 Gelbart presented preliminary ideas for this novel vaccine at the UCLA Division of Physical Sciences webinar entitled “The Science of Our Lives: Research That Matters During a Pandemic”.  A Distinguished Professor of Chemistry & Biochemistry, Gelbart joined the UCLA faculty in 1975, when he switched from photochemistry and molecular spectroscopy theory to the statistical mechanics of liquid crystals, self-assembling systems, polymer solutions, colloidal suspensions, and thin films. During a 1998-1999 sabbatical year at the Institute for Theoretical Physics in UC Santa Barbara and at the Curie Institute in Paris, Gelbart became deeply intrigued by viruses and over the course of the next several years, with his UCLA colleague Professor Charles Knobler, established a laboratory to investigate simple viruses outside their hosts and isolated in test tubes. Early results included: the first measurement of pressure inside DNA viruses, establishing that it is as high as tens of atmospheres depending on genome length and ambient salt concentrations; and the demonstration that capsid proteins from certain viruses are capable of packaging a broad range of lengths of heterologous RNA with 100% efficiency. This work, along with that of several other groups in the United States and Europe, helped launch the field of “physical virology”. Most recently he moved his viruses from test tubes to host cells, and from wildtype viruses to artificial viruses and virus-like particles, engineered for purposes of delivering self-replicating RNA genes, RNA vaccines, and therapeutic microRNA to targeted mammalian cells. To learn more about Gelbart’s research, visit his group’s website.

Penny Jennings, UCLA Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, penny@chem.ucla.edu.