Ask A Scientist

How can you kill viruses?

Asked by: Pleasure Tillery
School: West Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Ms. JoAnn Summerlee

Answer from Lina Begdache-Marhaba

Adjunct Lecturer, Binghamton University

Ms. Begdache-Marhaba's research areas are nutrition and obesity, cell and molecular biology, and neuroscience. She recieved her Ph.D from Binghamton University and enjoys Tae Kwon Do, basketball, and jogging. Mrs. Begdache-Marhaba is married to Ali Marhaba who is a doctor. They have two children, Jade who is 15 and Rani who is 11.

Your best bet would be to empower your immune system, which is the body’s defense against all invading pathogens including viruses. Viruses, like any other foreign microorganism, activate the two parts of the immune system upon their entry. The innate response is a set of molecules and cells (interferon and natural killer cells) that attack the virus and prevent subsequent infection. The second part of the immune system involves memory cells that produce an army of molecules, called antibodies, against some parts of the viral coat (a tag that identifies the virus). This is called acquired immunity since the antibodies produced are specific to the invaders. Hence, when the virus attacks subsequently, the defense force is already in place to hit and destroy the assailant. However, unlike bacteria, viruses are difficult to defeat. To evade their destruction, they keep on changing or mutating their coat (changing their identity).  With second intrusion, the antibodies no longer interact with them.

In contrast to bacteria, viruses are a type of parasite with genetic material contained within their coat, also known as capsule. They need to establish themselves in a host (like a human cell) in order to multiply. Upon cell invasion, the virus releases its genetic material and uses the cell machinery to produce more viruses to invade the neighboring cells. This is how a viral infection develops. As a result, the infected cells release interferon to create an “antiviral state” to protect the healthy neighboring cells from further infection. At the same time, natural killer (NK) cells become active and destroy the infected cells, decreasing viral infection. This is basically the innate response. Therefore, empowering your innate immunity is key to fighting-off a viral infection. Natural killer or NK cells are a vital component of the innate immunity for another reason too.  Besides riding the body of infectious cells, they are also capable of recognizing and destroying cancerous cells before turning into a tumor.

The composition of the diet plays a role in enhancing the number and activity of NK cells. Beta-carotene from carrots, tomatoes and leafy green vegetables; omega-3 fatty acids from fish and walnuts; vitamin E from nuts; and adequate protein levels boost the number of NK cells. Zinc from meat and seafood increases NK’s activity as well as enhances the acquired immune response. Vitamin C from citrus, kiwi and strawberries augments the acquired immune response, and some researchers have reported that it enhances interferon’s response too. A high fat diet, rich in omega-6 fatty acids (fat found mostly in processed and fast food) lowers the number of NK cells, compromising the innate immune system. People who exercise regularly have a higher number of NK cells when compared to people who are less active, even though right after an intense work-out the number of NK cells drops momentarily. In essence, to kill a virus you need to boost your immune system through increasing healthy food consumption and engaging in fun and moderate daily activities.

Last Updated: 3/1/17