Dalhousie Lab’s Goal Is To Unmask, Destroy Flu
May 24th, 2016
“I think it’s really an exciting time for virus research at Dalhousie, because we have strengths in virology and immunology,” said Dr. Craig McCormick, an associate professor in microbiology and immunology.
In a sort of research trifecta, Dalhousie’s nearby Canadian Centre for Vaccinology at the IWK studies vaccine development and conducts clinical trials, he said.
“It makes Halifax the best place in the country to do virus research,” he said.
“It’s fair to say we’re leading the country . . . in high-level virus research. There’s a lot of people involved in all facets of virus research in the region. Combined, it’s a really great training environment,” McCormick said.
So what makes a virus tick? That’s the burning question, he said.
“The virus gets the upper hand in our bodies.
“Once we figure out how it works, we can figure out how to defeat it.
“This could lead to new approaches to the development of antiviral drugs, and a new class of antiviral drugs that viruses have more difficulty evolving resistance against.”
Every year, the flu has morbidity and mortality, both placing a major burden on society.
Building a vaccine to a new strain takes time, so effective anti-viral drugs in the interim can help block the spread and save lives.
“We need new approaches, and that’s where our research comes in, with intimate details of how a virus interacts with us, so we can block the virus from replicating and stop it in its tracks, and provide a higher barrier,” McCormick said.
Virologist Denys Khaperskyy is a research associate in microbiology and immunology in McCormick’s Dalhousie lab.
He’s working on the basic molecular mechanisms that a virus uses for its benefit when it infects the host cell.
Viruses are great at shutting down mechanisms infected cells could use to defend themselves.
The protein Pa-X was discovered in 2012 by another research group.
How it works was still unknown — until now.
“We figured out it works by destroying precursor molecules to those messengers the cell would normally send to alert the immune system of the virus so the immune system can be recruited to the site of the infection and deal with the infection,” Khaperskyy said.
Often in influenza, the body’s immune system overreacts and destroys lung tissue without destroying the virus. The ultimate goal is to find drugs that would undermine the process the virus uses, he said.
“We are now much closer to a direct molecular understanding of how that happens.”
That’s three years of research.
A Natural Killer (NK) cell expert, Dr. Andrew Makrigiannis, heads Dalhousie’s department of microbiology & immunology.
He was recently recruited back to Halifax from the University of Ottawa.
“In a study led by my PhD student Ahmad Mahmoud, our Ottawa lab discovered new properties of NK cells that allow them to control influenza virus infection,” said Makrigiannis.
“We also found that influenza virus infection causes changes to the surface of infected cells, which prevent many of these NK cells from detecting them.”
“We’ve discovered a unique mechanism by which flu virus can hide and replicate inside an infected cell without being destroyed,” explained Mahmoud.
The next step will be to unmask influenza so the Natural Killer cells can kill infected cells.
His advice for coming flu seasons?
Get your flu shot.
“As an immunologist I have to promote vaccinations. You should get the flu vaccine for sure . . . The more that are vaccinated, the less people will get the flu and pass it on,” he said.
The labs’ findings have been published in PLOS Pathogens Journal, one of the major infectious disease journals.