Penn State scientists recently discovered new information about how viruses encode themselves by studying the poliovirus, which could lead to the creation of new vaccine strategies.
“It’s one of those things — it’s nice to be able to see that your work has practical observations that could prevent people from getting sick,” said Craig E. Cameron from Penn State’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.“Creating that knowledge is exciting. But of course, there are numerous hurdles that need to be cleared in order to show that it is a promising strategy for the future.”
David D. Boehr, an assistant professor and co-leader of the research team, said the research team is very interested in enzymes and how they work.
He said enzymes are protein catalysts and therefore are responsible for speeding up chemical reactions within a cell.
Boehr said the genetic information of some viruses — including polio — is made up of RNA, and that one enzyme in particular is responsible for replicating RNA in order to make sure it has everything correctly made.
“Viruses and bacteria, they have very short life cycles and so every life cycle they have some mutations. They have a mistake in their RNA, but this is important because it leads to genetic variation,” he said. “It turns out for this virus to survive and to cause disease, there needs to become level of variation and some level of the polymerase error.”
Cameron said in order for the diseases to form, the polymerase needs to make a certain number of mistakes to mutate it.
“You have to have some infidelity for the virus to cause a disease,” he said. “And what we’ve learned, probably five or ten years ago, if you made a virus that made fewer mistakes, it wouldn’t cause a disease.”
However, Cameron said back then, the research team was unsure how to extrapolate this information to other viruses. The current study makes this possible.
Cameron said the research team studies polio because, with the exception of several developing nations, the majority of the world is vaccinated against it.
“Everything you could want to do with a virus to develop antiviral or vaccines, you can do with this virus,” he said.
Though there is an effective vaccine for polio, Cameron said it was formed through trial and error and the team is working to figure out why it actually works.
Cameron said they have made a variety of breakthroughs over the past 15 years, but this is another significant milestone.
“Most of our previous work really emphasized anti-viral and what this work emphasizes is vaccine development,” he said. “You could say this is the second major step towards developing a vaccine.”
According to a press release from the Eberly College of Science, the research could also help improve existing vaccines against viruses that they have not previously worked on, including SARS, the common cold, hepatitis and encephalitis.
“This is probably not in the near, immediate future,” Boehr said. “But I should say that people have been studying these things for decades upon decades.
“We’re closer, but we’re not immediately there.”