A beautiful problem to study  pg. 2

Using methods such as X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy-three-dimensional image reconstruction, by which researchers can visualize frozen viral particles and construct 3-D images of them with the help of a computer, “we can address fundamental structural questions to understand—at an atomic level of resolution—how two proteins interact to create an important biology,’’ such as how the virus docks to its target cell, Dermody says.

This information is yielding insights into other, more virulent microbes, such as herpes simplex virus and West Nile virus, which cause encephalitis.

The researchers also are trying to construct potential vaccines for other viruses such as HIV, by introducing HIV genes into the reovirus genome. Because reoviruses are relatively innocuous, extremely stable and trigger strong immune responses, they could be a safe and effective way to vaccinate against their more dangerous cousins.

Unraveling the biology of reoviruses “is a fascinating problem … a beautiful problem to study,” Dermody says. “It keeps us up at night.”

Cancer-causing viruses also are an important research avenue. For example, vaccines have been developed to prevent infection by the hepatitis B virus, which can cause liver cancer, and infection by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which causes half of all cervical cancer.

Studies of cancer-causing viruses in the 1960s and 1970s laid the groundwork for understanding how cancer can develop. Oncogenic viruses can produce tumors by blocking genes and proteins that control normal cell growth and division. Mutations in these genes also can trigger abnormal cell growth—even in the absence of viral infection.

“Viruses are always better cell biologists than we are,” Dermody explains. “So if we can hitch a ride on a virus and figure out how it gets into a cell and how it moves, we’re going to learn a lot about how cells work.”

Basic research is key to preparing for the next pandemic, as well. “Scientists need to be equipped with all the skills to address these questions when the next SARS comes or the next HIV comes,” Dermody says. “Nobody can tell what the next virus is going to look like … Tomorrow the whole world may be tipped on its ear.”

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