“I study viruses in the hopes that one day my work could help save lives. Funding through the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards Program will allow me to leverage my discoveries to design life-saving therapies against some of the world’s deadliest pathogens. Saving lives is what I went into science to do – with the SPARK Award, we can get there together.”
What can we do *now* to prevent a future, even deadlier pandemic?
This year, the global economy was shut down by a pandemic caused by a virus for which humanity has no drugs available. To ensure we avoid another disaster like 2020, we must develop antiviral drugs to combat the next viral pandemic. Health experts believe the next pandemic could be caused by a member of the paramyxovirus family. This sprawling family of viruses includes measles, which still infects over 7 million people every year; parainfluenza, which causes croup; multiple livestock pathogens that cost the industry >$100 million annually; and the fairly new but lethal Nipah virus, which kills 9 of 10 people infected. All paramyxoviruses are highly infectious. The infectiousness of measles, for example, is unmatched: a single cough in a room of 100 unvaccinated people will infect 90 of those 100 people. We have no therapies to treat paramyxovirus infections and a paramyxovirus pandemic will be catastrophic.
Despite their deadly potential, paramyxoviruses carry only 6 genes. This is all that is required to copy themselves thousands of times. A key part of the paramyxovirus machinery is the matrix protein, which acts as a critical field marshal that gathers and guides the assembly of viral components to build new viruses and release them from the infected cell. If we could develop an antiviral drug that targets the matrix protein, we could arrest viral assembly and in turn, halt virus spread.
I recently determined the high-resolution molecular structures of several different paramyxovirus matrix proteins, learned how they hijack the human cell membrane, and identified three key vulnerable sites shared by many paramyxoviruses. A drug targeting one of these sites could block all or many paramyxoviruses. LJI has filed a provisional patent application on this concept. I now seek to find the candidate molecules to protect and capitalize on these discoveries. In this project, I will screen and identify small molecule drugs that bind into these sites to block the assembly and spread of new viruses. I will then test them against numerous paramyxoviruses relevant for human and livestock health.