Hero of the 20th Century
However, we are now using more targeted approaches to attenuate viruses and bacteria. This is based on our improved understanding about how pathogens are able to infect people. For example what do they look for on the surface of cells to invade them, how do they coerce the machinery of the cell to make copies of themselves rather than more cells and critically how do they hide from the immune response. All human viruses have evolved ways of escaping the immune response (immune evasion), viruses that are not able to escape our immune response are not able to infect us – that’s why for example we don’t get myxamatosis from rabbits. In our recently published study in the Journal of Virology, we discovered a new immune evasion function for a gene in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a really important disease in children, causing 160,000 deaths worldwide and hospitalising 1% of all children under 1 in the UK (including my son).
The gene we were interested in is called SH (or small hydrophobic gene – sadly whilst drosophila geneticists get to call genes things like sonic the hedgehog and LUSH, we get names based on the structure or function, or sometimes just the order they were found). It is believed to make a small hydrophobic protein (can you see what we did there!) which folds up to make a pore or tube like structure. Based on other studies using similar proteins from other viruses, we hypothesized that this protein would actually alert the immune system, so we were surprised to find that infection with RSV lacking SH (RSV ΔSH) led to MORE of specific type of signal rather than less. We then saw that if this signal was blocked, the virus – which previously grew less well in lungs, grew to the same level as unchanged virus. We think this might be important both in our understanding about viral biology and possibly in developing strategies to make targeted vaccines. We were supported in this work by two grant programs from the EU, Aditec and Biovacsafe, which has enabled a lot of the work in the lab to be performed.