What if scientists can decipher what happens to the virus before it gets inside cells? It can surely help them devise new methods to prevent infection altogether.

Researchers at New Jersey-based Princeton University have achieved an unprecedented 3D look at a virus-like particle as it tries to break into and infect a cell.

The technique could help scientists learn more about how to deliver drugs via nanoparticles — which are about the same size as viruses — as well as how to prevent viral infection from occurring.

“The challenge in imaging these events is that viruses and nanoparticles are small and fast, while cells are relatively large and immobile. That has made it very hard to capture these interactions,” explained Kevin Welsher, a post-doctoral researcher in Princeton University’s department of chemistry.

The researchers solved the problem by using two cameras — one that locked onto the virus-like nanoparticle and followed it faithfully and another filmed the cell and surrounding environment.

The new video reveals a virus-like particle zipping around in a rapid, erratic manner until it encounters a cell, bounces and skids along the surface, and slips into the cell’s interior.

“What Welsher has done is really different. He can capture a three-dimensional view of a virus-sized particle attacking a living cell. This gives us a completely new level of understanding,” said Haw Yang, associate professor of chemistry and Mr. Welsher’s adviser.

The technology has potential benefits for both drug discovery and basic scientific discovery.

“This would impact the study of how nanoparticles can deliver medicines to cells, potentially leading to some new lines of defense in antiviral therapies,” Mr. Welsher said in the research published in Nature Nanotechnology.

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