TYLER, Texas — Doctors Dustin Patterson and Brent Bill are working on something so big, you cannot even see it without the help of a high-powered microscope.

"We're exploiting the useful properties of a virus. But we're re-purposing it," Patterson said.

Patterson engineers what he calls 'virus-like particles' in his biochemistry lab at UT Tyler.

"They don't contain any of the pathogenic parts, they're just the shell of the virus. And that gives it useful properties," Patterson explained. "It's small, it can contain things on the inside, and it can travel through the bloodstream and into cells."

These 'virus-like particles' can be altered further to allow them to seek out their intended targets, cancer cells.

"We can actually program that virus-like particle to attach itself and enter specific cells that we want it to. In this case, we want to target cancer cells," Patterson said.

The unique traits of these particles allow for them to carry an important payload. Patterson says the goal is to make a 'smart bomb' for cancer. 

"If we can program chemically the outside of the virus particle, so that only goes to a cancer cell packed full of drugs, then what we can do is have a selective kind of smart bomb that will go only to cancer," Patterson said. "Then its cargo of drugs on the inside can be released and it can kill the cancer cell."

This precision treatment of cancer cells would change the treatment approach altogether.

"That's better than say, the traditional kind of chemotherapy where you just take certain dosages of drugs, and all kinds of cells will actually take them in," Patterson said. "So you get normal cells that are dying, and cancer cells that are dying." 

Patterson is still working on putting chemotherapy drugs inside these 'viruses-like particles'. The concept has been tested on zebra-fish, which Bill has genetically engineered to have cancer.

When Patterson's virus shells carrying a color marker were added, it went to the right place.

"What we saw was these fluorescent molecules actually started to localize in very specific regions of the zebrafish," Bill explained, "And so what this is telling us is that basically, we're going to be getting the virus-like particles to the locations that we need, which is right at the tumor."

Patterson says this research is something that affects everyone.

"I have a father as cancer, I, everybody probably knows somebody who has a loved one that they care about that has cancer. And this is a major problem that we have," Patterson said. "And if we have some way of alleviating that problem, and we can invest our time and our resources into trying to tackle that problem, make things better for people. You know that's the ultimate motivation for why this is important."