Virus-like Particles: Measures and Biological Functions


Bhat, Tara, Amy Cao, and John Yin. 2022. “Virus-like Particles: Measures and Biological Functions.” Viruses 14 (2): 383. ‌

Virus-like particles resemble infectious virus particles in size, shape, and molecular composition; however, they fail to productively infect host cells. Historically, the presence of virus-like particles has been inferred from total particle counts by microscopy, and infectious particle counts or plaque-forming-units (PFUs) by plaque assay; the resulting ratio of particles-to-PFUs is often greater than one, easily 10 or 100, indicating that most particles are non-infectious. Despite their inability to hijack cells for their reproduction, virus-like particles and the defective genomes they carry can exhibit a broad range of behaviors: interference with normal virus growth during co-infections, cell killing, and activation or inhibition of innate immune signaling. In addition, some virus-like particles become productive as their multiplicities of infection increase, a sign of cooperation between particles. Here, we review established and emerging methods to count virus-like particles and characterize their biological functions. We take a critical look at evidence for defective interfering virus genomes in natural and clinical isolates, and we review their potential as antiviral therapeutics. In short, we highlight an urgent need to better understand how virus-like genomes and particles interact with intact functional viruses during co-infection of their hosts, and their impacts on the transmission, severity, and persistence of virus-associated diseases.

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As of 10 December 2021, coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID‐19) caused by SARS‐CoV‐2 accounted for 267 million people with up to 5.3 million deaths worldwide ( Since late 2019, much progress has been made in response to the COVID‐19 pandemic, including the rapid developments of effective vaccines and the treatment guidelines consisting of antiviral drugs, immunomodulators, and critical care support ( However, SARS‐CoV‐2 evolves over time as its genome has a high mutation rate that leads to reasonable concerns of breakthrough infection due to immune escape and resistant strain emergence under antiviral pressure (Lipsitch et al., 2021; Szemiel et al., 2021). A newly emerging Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant rings alarms around the globe that, perhaps, the COVID‐19 war has just begun. Relentless efforts should be made to advance our knowledge and treatment regimens against COVID‐19. These included studies of mesenchymal stem cell (MSC) therapy that aimed to mitigate cytokine storm and promote tissue repair in severely ill patients with COVID‐19 pneumonia and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) (Hashemian et al., 2021; Meng et al., 2020; Zhu et al., 2021). Nevertheless, as extensively discussed in a recent review by Dr. Phillip W. Askenase of Yale University School of Medicine, the immunomodulatory and regenerative effects of MSC therapy are mediated through MSC‐derived extracellular vesicles (MSC‐EVs) (Askenase, 2020), while the use of MSC‐EVs has less safety concerns of thromboembolism, arrhythmia and malignant transformation. In this direction, MSC‐EV investigations for COVID‐19 treatment would be more appealing and undeniable if MSC‐EVs also exhibit anti‐SARS‐CoV‐2 effects. A previous study revealed that MSC‐EVs pertained antiviral activity against influenza virus in a preclinical model (Khatri et al., 2018). It is known that MSCs are highly resistant to viral infections (Wu et al., 2018), including SARS‐CoV‐2 (Avanzini et al., 2021). We, therefore, hypothesized that the EVs released from MSCs could inhibit SARS‐CoV‐2 infection.

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