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BUSM faculty author commentary on the global challenges of emerging viral infections

(Boston) Paul Duprex, PhD, and Elke Mhlberger, PhD, both associate professors of microbiology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), recently co-authored a commentary about viruses for Microbiology Today, the monthly publication of the Society of General Microbiology, which is the largest microbiological society in Europe. The article focuses on the history of viruses and vaccines and gives their perspective on what is necessary to evolve to the next era of virology research.

The ability to grow cells from humans and other animals in the laboratory helped researchers generate vaccines against a range of viruses such as measles, chickenpox and hepatitis A and B, all of which were developed by Maurice Hilleman in the 1950s. A seminal moment in vaccinology occurred in 1979 when the World Health Organization formally announced the eradication of smallpox, which, said the authors, was a result of an unprecedented collaboration between governments, donors, industry and health professionals.

Recent advances in molecular biology, which allow the complete genome sequence of a virus to be determined alongside huge strides in synthetic biology, now permits researchers to create viruses in the laboratory, even if they only have access to the genomic DNA sequence. The authors argue that this means it is no longer possible to formally eradicate a virus from the globe and that elimination for circulation is a much more attractive goal. Moreover, the authors argue that "emerging and re-emerging viruses will be a continuing threat to human health because of their amazing potential to adapt to their current hosts, to switch to new hosts and to evolve strategies to escape antiviral measures," highlighting the increased risks of naturally occurring infections or bioterrorism attacks.

"Viruses can be manipulated in many ways, including the replacement and addition of extra genes, and genomes have been both split and rearranged in previously unimaginable ways," said the authors. They also make the claim that there needs to be a more clear understanding between the how viruses develop and become more or less virulent. That understanding, said the authors, will lead to a paradigm shift in vaccinology, "from simple to targeted isolation; from empirical to rational attenuation and from non-specific to tissue-targeted vaccination."

"Emerging viruses are not restricted to the developing world and stark lessons and significant economic costs are associated with the to-this-day-unexplained introduction of West Nile virus into the US," said the authors. "This crystallizes why these emerging pathogens matter from both public health and economic standpoints."

The authors underscore the importance of global collaboration among virology researchers as they continue to confront emerging pathogens and develop novel ways to treat viruses.

"A long overdue renaissance in vaccinology has commenced, and it is with anticipation and excitement that we wait to see progress in the next decade," said the authors in closing.


Contact: Jenny Eriksen
Boston University Medical Center

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