Researchers Examine Ways to Combat Flu Virus
Thanks to a grant from the National Institutes for Health, four researchers are studying novel ways to prevent and treat the influenza virus, which kills about 36,000 people each year and sends another 200,000 to the hospital.
Viral mutations keep people flocking to the doctor’s office for annual flu shots. Proteins on the outside of the virus shell – the “H” or hemagglutinin and “N” or neuraminidase proteins – change shape rapidly and render vaccines ineffective. These protein mutations allow the virus to slip by a previously infected immune system and subject the victim to fever, chills and aches.
“The virus is ‘smart’ in that it modifies proteins on the outside so that the hosts’ body cannot recognize it,” said Suresh Kumar, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. “We need to be one step smarter than the virus and attack something it is not anticipating.”
Kumar and his colleagues Yu-Chun Du, Robyn Goforth and Ralph Henry in biological sciences will study a different viral protein called NS1.
“NS1 facilitates the virus to hijack the host cell machinery to make its own proteins,” Kumar said. It also blocks the cells’ natural defenses – a group of proteins called interferons.
Because NS1 interacts with host cells, it changes little over time, making it a target for researchers who hope to shut down the flu. However, to create a novel vaccine or treatment based on this protein, scientists must understand how it works.
“The aim of this grant is to identify novel host proteins that interact with NS1,” Kumar said.