Can we win the virus war?

“The way the school uses the laboratory research environment as a teaching tool makes this a good place to start for students who are thinking of science.”

Almost as soon as we received news that the most recent ebola epidemic in West Africa had been brought under control, after the loss of 11,315 lives, a new threat was announced in South America, in the form of the zika virus. Sierra Leone reported a recurrence of Ebola in January, and similar flare-ups are preventing the World Health Organisation from declaring the epidemic over. The pressure remains high to find a vaccine for the world’s most dangerous dinfectious diseases. Dr Michael Jarvis, of Plymouth University’s School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences, has made it his life’s work. With nearly two decades of experience in virology and using state-of-the-art technology, he is regarded as a leading expert. We asked him to explain what he does (in a way we can understand) and talk about the latest breakthroughs being made at Plymouth University, where he and his team of students are pioneering new ways of protecting animals and humans from the spread of life-threatening viruses.

 

For the uninitiated, can you explain what your job involves?

Virology is the study of viruses, which are simply genetic material wrapped in a coat of protein and sometimes fat. Since viruses are so simple in structure they require our cells to supply a lot of additional machinery in order for them to reproduce. As large multicellular organisms, we and other animals are a huge resource that viruses can exploit for their reproduction. Our immune responses have evolved to prevent them from doing this.

 

You came to Plymouth from America; what was it about the university that inspired you to further your research here?

Over the past decade my main interest has become how we can use viruses as vaccines. Basically whether we can use one virus to induce an immune response that will prevent infection by a different, more harmful virus or bacteria. But to do this we first need to understand how viruses work. In science you never really know what's going to pan out, but you can recruit the best you can, and then support them to succeed. This is why I came to Plymouth. The environment being created in the school and within PUPSMD (Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry) is very supportive and conducive to enabling the work.

 

Could you tell us about the team that supports you, and what opportunities there are for undergraduates to get involved in your research?

The lab is comprised of myself, my post-doc Aisling, and two PhD students, Shirin and Hujaz. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. We're all excited by the science and work hard. I also have undergraduate project students in my lab. In the school we have a taught MSc in Biomedical Sciences that uses the active laboratory research environment as a teaching tool. I think these are good places to start for students who are thinking of science. This year I have been working with a team of five undergraduate nutrition students to ask what the effect of Nutri-bullet blenders on blood sugar levels compared to the non-Nutri-bulleted fruit. This has turned into a really cool and exciting project with interesting results.

Your lab links up with other research units across the globe. How do you interact with each other and how does sharing data help your research?



Trust is so important. It's also important that you get along, and my collaborators are some of my best friends. They are also incredibly bright, which is a big plus! We connect by Skype, email and phone. Meeting one-on-one is also critical. Good ideas don't come from sitting in your lab, they come through conversation. As part of my training to work with the Ebola virus, I spend three weeks a year in Montana, USA at the NIH (National Institutes of Health) facility.

 

One of your more recent studies involved the development of an Ebola vaccine for great apes in Africa; how could this also help prevent future outbreaks in human populations?

This is a project involving a lot of people, each with their own expertise. Ebola virus is what is called a ‘zoonosis’, which means it is a virus that spreads to humans from animals, in this case gorillas and chimpanzees. Once in humans, Ebola then spreads from human to human, as we saw recently in West Africa. Our idea is if we can vaccinate gorillas and chimpanzees against Ebola we can prevent them spreading it to humans. Ebola is also devastating these ape populations, so this approach protects them as well. It’s a potential win-win situation for both human health and great ape conservation. We have multiple partners involved in this project, including the NIH and the WWF (World Wildlife Federation).

It was developed by engineering a virus called the cytomegalovirus (CMV). How did your lab identify this particular virus as the one for the job?

In healthy people and animals, CMV is a harmless virus that has many really useful qualities for its development as a vaccine against other, more harmful, microbes. We inserted regions of these harmful microbes into the CMV, which causes an immune response. CMV has been known for some time to induce T cells – the immune system cells that kill virally infected cells in the body. Our paper that came out this February now shows that CMV also induces antibodies, which bind to and inactivate viruses and bacteria. These immune responses are also really long-lived, so you may only need a single dose of the CMV vaccine to achieve life-long protection.

Finally, CMV can spread from individual-to-individual. We are taking advantage of this quality to produce a self-disseminating CMV vaccine for Ebola in apes and also for bovine TB in badgers. With this idea you only need to vaccinate a couple of animals, and then the vaccine would spread from animal-to-animal thereby spreading immunity.

 

This is a fast-moving scientific field. What breakthroughs do you hope to see in our lifetime?

That’s the wonder of science. Everything can change in the timeframe of a single day, or a single band on a gel. When I was an undergraduate, cloning a warm-blooded animal was the Holy Grail, and then along came Dolly the sheep. Today CrispR (a gene-editing technique) technology is revolutionising our ability to change a cell’s DNA. Right now, my post-doc is developing CrispR to more rapidly make CMV vaccines. We need a means to increase the delivery of proteins and DNA into cells into the body. That could be a real game changer.


Learn about studying BSc (Hons) Biomedical Sciences at Plymouth.


Student Life magazine - Summer 2016 issue 3