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Albright College Researchers on Hunt for Better Vaccines

Aug. 9, 2017

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Reading, Pa. – Albright College researchers are shedding new light on virus biology, and their work could potentially lead to safer means for delivering vaccines.

Assistant biology professor Adam Hersperger, Ph.D., has co-authored a new study with alumni Tiffany Frey ’17 and Colton Ryan ’16 in the journal Virology that explores the impact of ectromelia virus, or mousepox, on a non-human primate cell. Mousepox is a lesion-causing poxvirus that affects only mice, and therefore could potentially be used as a vaccine vector, or a vehicle to safely and effectively deliver vaccines to humans.

Studying the primate cell, the researchers found that mousepox caused less accumulation of double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) than vaccinia virus, a related poxvirus strain that was used to eradicate smallpox. Less dsRNA would not elicit such a strong response from the host and could potentially be a safer vaccine vector for people.

“There is constantly a search to find better vaccine vehicles. Poxviruses are well studied and can be engineered to elicit immune responses against harmful pathogens such as HIV,” said Hersperger. “There is also a push to find vaccine vectors that are safe but also effective at inducing immune responses. Ectromelia only causes disease in mice, so it would be a safe option to use in vaccine trials in humans. Our current study further bolters that argument since we found that ectromelia forms less dsRNA, which is a potent immune stimulator and pro-inflammatory molecule.”

The dsRNA is produced by a virus when it invades a cell and begins to replicate. The presence of dsRNA triggers the human immune system to respond with anti-viral defense mechanisms. Viruses will fight back by trying to hide their dsRNA.

But mousepox lacks a crucial K3 protein that helps other viruses, including vaccinia, evade dsRNA detection and resulting immune system response. So mousepox may not generate as strong of an immune response, but the trade-off is a potentially safer vehicle to deliver a vaccine.

Hersperger and his team believe mousepox compensated for the lack of K3 by producing less dsRNA so as to avoid detection from the host.

Frey and Ryan performed most of the experiments conducted at Albright. The team also collaborated with researchers in Munich, Germany, who had access to certain equipment and substances needed to complete the work. 

“I feel as though I had the opportunity to do some really interesting research that could contribute to vaccine delivery. Any time your project could have a real impact on the world, especially medically, because that’s the field I’m getting into, it’s really exciting,” said Ryan, who is entering his second year of medical school at Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey.

Frey said performing research was the highlight of her Albright career. “Not only did this project help by contributing information to the scientific community, but it allowed me to gain vital laboratory skills and narrow down my interests for the future,” said Frey, who will be attending the University of Florida College of Medicine to pursue a doctorate in the biomedical sciences with a focus in virology and immunology.

“Studying the areas of virology and immunology is critical in making advancements in human health, so being a part of this project was a great experience,” she said.

Part of the Albright work was supported by a 2015 grant Hersperger received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the interaction between viruses and a host’s immune response.

To access the study: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0042682217301873.