A UAMS researcher has received a grant for $1.86 million to study poxvirus with implications for infectious disease and cancer.
The poxvirus — with its applications for the investigation of disease development, cross-species infection-caused diseases, vaccine development and cancer virotherapy — is the focus of research by Jia Liu, Ph.D., who has received the grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The grant is from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and will support Liu’s work for five years. Liu is an assistant professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in the UAMS College of Medicine. She will be studying the poxvirus on the molecular level and how the disease develops.
Poxviruses belong to a virus family that includes smallpox. A specific poxvirus that can only infect rabbits, called myxoma virus (MYXV), became particularly interesting to scientists since the 1950s because the virus was used in Australia and Europe as a biological weapon against a species of rabbits called European rabbits. The rabbits were overly abundant and destroying crops. Because MYXV was new to the European rabbits, they had no resistance against its infection.
Initially, the virus worked, cutting the rabbit population by 99 percent. However, within a decade, the rabbits had adapted to develop resistance to the MYXV infection and their numbers were on the rise again. Meanwhile, the virus was also changing. The incident gave scientists a real-world chance to watch a deadly pathogen (the virus) and its host (the rabbits) adapt in an arms-race fight for the upper hand.
“It’s a dramatic example of how virus-host interactions and similar events can be happening in our bodies constantly,” Liu said. “We are surrounded by microbes all the time. So why don’t we get sick constantly? It has to do with the host’s natural immune response, which forms a formidable barrier against pathogens. However, there are critical gaps in our knowledge about how it protects us from things like viral infections. More importantly, once we learn how our immune system works, we can train them to eliminate malignancies like cancer.”
With this five-year phase of funding, Liu’s goals are to understand host immunity and the role a pathogen can undertake to keep diseases from spreading from one species to another. The research could have an impact on global outbreaks.
Additionally, Liu’s work could ultimately improve cancer treatments. Many of the advances that led to modern immunotherapies in cancer began with molecular-level research like hers. Oncolytic immune-virotherapy is a novel concept that introduces viruses that can directly kill cancer cells and activate and usher the host’s immune system to attack cancer cells.
“Many believe the future of such therapies for cancer lies in viruses such as MYXV that do not cause diseases in humans,” Liu said. “If we can come to a clear understanding of how viruses such as MYXV interact with human immune system, we could confidently use these them in cancer treatments for humans, perhaps providing a better option than what is currently available.”