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Unlocking Viral Secrets
August 1, 2014   
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A researcher in the coastal city of Gdańsk is studying herpes viruses to see how they affect the immune systems of animals such as cows and pigs. The research could help scientists develop more effective drugs and vaccines for humans.

Herpes viruses can cause various respiratory and reproductive system diseases in cattle and pigs, says Andrea Lipińska, Ph.D., a molecular biologist from the Department of Molecular Virology at the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology, a joint unit of the University of Gdańsk and the Medical University of Gdańsk in northern Poland. There are vaccines available on the market, but these are far from perfect, says the researcher. Understanding the mechanisms underlying an infection is key to developing new drugs and better prevention methods, she adds.

The bovine herpes virus, for example, causes big problems when cows are transported. There are viruses that remain in an infected animal in a latent state after the infection and are often activated during transportation or in other conditions stressful to the animals. They can cause accompanying infections such as pneumonia, loss of milk or miscarriage in cows.

The porcine herpes virus causes similar diseases in swine. The European Union requires that a country wanting to export cows, pigs or meat of these animals is free from a given disease. In Poland, there are mandatory vaccination programs for pigs, but veterinary vaccines can promote associated infections. Improved vaccines could be used in smaller doses.

There are vaccines only for two of the diseases caused by herpes viruses in humans: chickenpox and shingles. Therefore virologists are looking for ways to develop new innovative vaccines. This is not easy because herpes viruses strongly inhibit the body’s defense mechanisms.

In Poland, little research has been done on herpes viruses. This especially applies to studies concerning the immunomodulatory properties of this family of viruses, Lipińska says. She conducted some of the work for her doctoral thesis in the Netherlands. She later received zl.554,000 from the Foundation for Polish Science for a research project involving herpes viruses.

“I’m investigating specific viral proteins [proteins encoded by a viral genome] that inhibit the body’s immune response,” says Lipińska. “Two of these were known earlier. We have explained in detail how they work. We have identified the properties of a third protein during the project. The most effective vaccines are based on live viruses, but it is necessary to rid them of immunomodulatory properties. Our studies have made it possible to indicate which viral genes should not be used in a vaccine.”

Karolina Olszewska
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