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Altered virus could become vaccine

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Drs. Raquel Hernandez and Dennis BrownMarc Hall photoThe research of Drs. Raquel Hernandez and Dennis Brown has led to promising vaccine candidates for dengue and Chikungunya fevers.

What Dr. Dennis Brown and Dr. Raquel Hernandez, a husband-and-wife research team in N.C. State University’s Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry, are learning about a virus called Sindbis could lead to vaccines for a range of diseases.

Vaccines work, of course, by provoking a mild response to a disease, thus teaching the body to recognize and fight the disease.

Brown and Hernandez discovered a way to alter the Sindbis virus to produce a Sindbis mutant that does not reproduce when it infects mammalian cells but reproduces normally in insect cells.

Insect cell reproduction means large amounts of the virus can be produced. The inability to infect a mammalian host, like a person, means the virus causes an immune reaction but not disease.

While Sindbis does not cause disease, viruses similar to Sindbis, such as those that cause dengue and yellow fever, do. It should be possible to alter these Sindbis cousins the same way Sindbis was changed to create vaccines. The alteration technology, which was patented, was licensed to a company called Arbovax, which is developing vaccines for dengue fever, West Nile fever and Chikungunya fever.

More recently, Brown and Hernandez discovered a way to increase the capacity of the Sindbis virus, which is small, to deliver large amounts of genetic material to a cell. This discovery, also patented, opens the possibility the virus could become a vehicle to deliver genetic therapies.

-Dave Caldwell

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