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Scientists uncover secrets of potential bioterror virus
Date:2/17/2009

GALVESTON, Texas Researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston have discovered a key tactic that the Rift Valley fever virus uses to disarm the defenses of infected cells.

The mosquito-borne African virus causes fever in humans, inflicting liver damage, blindness and even death on a small percentage of the people it infects. Rift Valley fever also afflicts cattle, goats and sheep, resulting in a nearly 100 percent abortion rate in these animals. Its outbreaks periodically cause economic devastation in parts of Kenya, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and bioterrorism experts warn that its introduction to the United States would cripple the North American beef industry.

"It's really important to know how this virus causes disease, and that's what we're doing here, working to understand its pathogenicity at the molecular level," said assistant professor Tetsuro Ikegami, lead author of a paper on the discovery now appearing in PLoS Pathogens.

Ikegami and his collaborators focused on a viral protein called NSs. The protein was already known to be a major factor in making Rift Valley fever more virulent; earlier research had shown that it penetrated cell nuclei and disrupted the coding of RNA messages, including those ordering the production of the antiviral protein interferon beta.

"We didn't know what the mechanism was, but we suspected NSs had some additional function that would promote viral replication," Ikegami said. So starting with an already weakened strain of Rift Valley fever virus produced as part of a vaccine development project he created a genetically engineered form of the virus that lacked the genes for NSs.

Safety precautions make working with natural, "wild-type" Rift Valley fever virus difficult; at UTMB, investigations are restricted to a tightly secured biosafety level 4 lab, where researchers work in protective, full-body "spacesuits." By contrast, the vaccine strain of
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Contact: Jim Kelly
jpkelly@utmb.edu
409-772-8791
University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
Source:Eurekalert

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