From the moment self-replicating molecules began duking it out (and occasionally co-operating) in ancient oceans, evolution began equipping them with new strategies of attack and defence. Some molecules evolved into larger assemblages and then into living organisms. Those that became viruses, on the other hand, remained tiny but devastatingly successful. Their evolutionary advantage lay in honing the complex toolkit that allows them to travel to a host, unlock its defences and reproduce.
Understanding viral strategies and host response is key to neutralizing the virus and the target of much research in the health sciences. Today that quest has become highly multi-disciplinary – one that also depends critically on new knowledge being developed in the fields that NSERC supports.
A quick search of the NSERC database reveals the names of hundreds of NSERC-funded researchers involved in viral research.
Here are a just a few:
Dr. Fawzi Aoudjit, of Université Laval, is studying how specific cells of the immune defense system, called T lymphocytes, move through tissue to locations where they can destroy cells infected by viruses or promote inflammation and tissue damage. Understanding T cell migration is crucial to understanding the immune response to infection, and potentially to the design of new therapies in inflammatory diseases.
In collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the Canadian Institute for Health Research, Dr. Denis Archambault, of the Université du Québec à Montréal, works on novel strategies to prevent rotavirus from breaching the mucosal wall of the intestine. Rotaviruses are the major cause of human gastroenteritis, killing 800,000 people worldwide each year. Dr. Archambault also has an NSERC Strategic Grant to investigate the porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus.
Dr. Benoit Barbeau, also of the Université du Québec à Montréal, studies sequences of viral DNA that were integrated into the genome of primates millions of years ago. Some of these DNA regions have been reported to generate viruses, which although they are non-infectious can be observed outside the cell wall. Dr. Barbeau wants to know how these genes are turned on and if they play a role in biological processes and disease.
Dr. Andrew Lang of Memorial University uses genetics, bioinformatics and microscopy to understand the role that viruses play in the movement of genetic material between cells. This phenomenon of genetic exchange has significant consequences for the current state of life on Earth. It is a major mechanism by which bacteria change their genetic makeup.
Dr. Vikram Misra, at the University of Saskatchewan, studies how herpes viruses sense stress in their hosts. These infections begin with active replication of the virus in skin cells at the site of entry. The virus then infects sensory nerves innervating the area of virus replication and establishes a latent infection in nerve cells. Here it quietly remains, protected from the host's defenses.
Dr. Shayan Sharif, of the University of Guelph, is investigating how the chicken’s immune system sees avian influenza virus and how it responds to the virus. The ultimate goal is to develop better vaccines against this disease in chickens, which would also disrupt transmission of the virus from birds to humans. He has also been conducting long-term studies of Marek’s disease (a cancer in chickens caused by a virus). Although the disease was probably the first cancer against which a commercial vaccine was developed, little is known at the molecular and cellular levels about how chickens respond to the virus infection.
Dr. May Griffith and colleagues at the University of Ottawa are working on a strategy to defeat the herpes simplex virus, which can infect the cornea of the eye and then lie dormant until non-specific factors such as stress, sunlight or certain foods trigger it to resume ulcerating the cornea. As many as 500,000 cases are reported each year in the U.S. alone. Current treatment options for this painful disease, which can lead to blindness, are limited and often unsuccessful. Her work is carried out in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Luzchem Research Inc. and Variation Biotechnologies Inc.