New U institute takes on viruses

by Naomi Scott

Microscopic molecules, some of which can be deadly to humans, are the focus of the University’s new Institute for Molecular Virology.

The institute, which received official approval in January, studies how viruses interact with their hosts and how these interactions can lead to disease. The institute also looks at how viruses can be prevented through intervention.

Louis Mansky, director of the institute and a University microbiology and oral sciences professor, said the institute has a “multiprong purpose.” The institute brings together University faculty members who have an interest in viruses. It also promotes virus education on campus and seeks to translate virus research into clinical solutions, Mansky said.

Leslie Schiff, a University professor of microbiology, said researchers who study viruses are scattered in a lot of different disciplines around the University. These disciplines include biochemistry, dentistry, cell biology and microbiology, she said.

“The institute is bringing a forum to bring these people together,” Schiff said.

Mansky said researchers at the institute do studies on many different viruses, including HIV, which causes AIDS. The research is in response to a move by the federal government, which allocated a lot of grant money to AIDS research, he said.

“Globally, AIDS is one of the most important health problems in the world,” he said.

Two types of HIV research are done at the institute. One type focuses on how HIV causes AIDS. The other, which Mansky works on, studies how the virus replicates itself. This type of

research could ultimately lead to the development of new vaccines and antiviral drugs, Mansky said.

A group of faculty members from the veterinary school is doing another type of research at the institute. The group is studying a viral disease found in pigs that causes serious harm or death to a pregnant pig’s fetus. Mansky said studying the disease is important because it has caused the swine industry to lose a lot of money.

One of the largest grants ever awarded for animal disease research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture is being used to study this viral disease at the University, Mansky said.

Other work at the institute includes research on the herpes virus, Mansky said. Studying herpes is important, because it is a common virus, he said.

Stephen Rice, a University professor of microbiology, said he works with the first type of herpes virus, which commonly affects the lips, causing fever blisters and cold sores.

Rice studies how the herpes virus regulates its genes during infection. When it infects a cell, the virus has to trick the host cell into letting it use the cell’s machinery, which helps the virus infect the cell.

Schiff studies reoviruses, which cause respiratory infections and diarrhea in humans and animals.

Reoviruses do not cause serious harm, but they can be used to learn the basics of how viruses work, Schiff said.

“The lessons we have learned from studying reoviruses are generally applicable to more pathogenic viruses,” she said.

Studying how reoviruses get into cells can lead to increased understanding of how viruses such as Ebola get into cells, Schiff said.

The study of reoviruses could also help researchers learn how to treat tumors, she said.

“Because reoviruses don’t cause serious human disease but replicate preferentially in tumor cells, they are being developed as anti-tumor agents,” Schiff said.