Marc Johnson began his research career studying a rabies-like virus in fish. “Working with fish viruses is really cool research,” he notes, but there are just not a lot of people doing it,” and that sense of isolation was eventually too much. In search of collaboration and community, Johnson switched from fish viruses to HIV. Since then, the assistant professor in MU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology has dedicated his research efforts to the study of these related humans viruses. He and his collaborators have made great progress in understanding how the HIV virus works in order to develop new therapeutics to combat the disease.
In a back corner of the University of Missouri’s medical building, a few floors above the hospital and tucked away to the right, Habib Zaghouani watches a cellular war. He has been up there for seven years, with an army of graduate students and a colony of mice, trying to understand why our bodies attack us and how we can make them stop.
While scientists have developed ways to treat HIV, they have yet to develop a cure for the devastating disease because they have not been able to kill every last infected cell. “HIV has our immune system’s ‘number.’ Our immune system cannot figure out that those are infected cells and that it needs to kill them.” The protein responsible for HIV virus replication is the Gag protein. Much of Johnson’s current work is focused on understanding how Gag orchestrates this replication, as this knowledge could be used to uncover a treatment capable of triggering the immune system’s response.
Comparing parts of the HIV virus to the parts of a military missile, Johnson explains the various components of the virus. A complete understanding of the HIV structure and life cycle will help scientists develop new treatments for the disease. “It’s pretty remarkable, and there’s clearly a lot about it that we don’t yet know,” Johnson admits. Most of his research revolves around the protein Gag.
Danielle Tartar leads the project that works to treat Type I diabetes. In mice, the team has been able to isolate treatment and calm the immune cells that attack the insulin-producing cells. They are now working to create a form of that treatment that can be administered orally. Thus far, they have been able to treat the disease with weekly shots, and they plan to begin testing these treatments on humans very soon.
Zaghouani’s third project has had great success. Cara Haymaker, who is in charge of this research program, reports that they have identified a successful treatment for experimental allergic encephalomyelitis, a disease affecting mice that is very similar to multiple sclerosis in humans. So far, the research team has been able to completely reverse the disease in mice with two forms of treatment.