Nipah virus is an emergent paramyxovirus related to pathogens that cause measles, mumps, and a croup-associated flu virus in humans, as well as Newcastle Disease and Peste de Petits Ruminants in livestock. Humans contract Nipah from infected individuals or animals, such as fruit bats or pigs. The virus is endemic to regions of Southeast Asia, India, and Bangladesh, and kills 40–70 percent of those infected by attacking cells in the respiratory or nervous systems and causing symptoms of fever, headache, and nausea, which often progress to fatal encephalitis.
Treatment options for Nipah infection are limited. People living in relevant regions are cautioned to avoid infected animals or products they have contaminated, such as palm sap, and to practice good hygiene. Drugs such as ribavirin, which ameliorate symptoms of some viral infections, are minimally effective against NiV infection, and there is no approved vaccine, although some candidates have been found effective in animal models.
LJI scientists are working to improve these outcomes and develop therapeutics against what remains a serious public health concern.
One roadblock to progress in establishing anti-Nipah interventions (including a vaccine) has been the lack of high-resolution structures of key viral proteins. Nipah and related paramyxoviruses express a multifunctional phosphoprotein, called P, which executes numerous virus functions. This protein could be targeted by antibodies or other immune factors elicited by a vaccine.
LJI structural virologist Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., is investigating the structure of specific regions of the P protein and has identified motifs conserved across species that may be essential for the virus to replicate or enclose itself in a capsid. Two particular features, a basic patch and a kink in the protein, are conserved in the related measles virus, providing additional evidence that they support essential virus activities. Saphire is now illuminating these structures to provide new avenues for broad-spectrum antiviral defense.