We study how RNA viruses replicate in order to understand how they work and to find better ways of treating diseases such as influenza and COVID-19.
Viruses are infectious parasites that can cause disease. Viruses cannot grow on their own — they must infect a 'host' cell in order to reproduce, and often cause disease in the process. All forms of life, from bacteria and fungi to plants and animals, are infected by at least one type of virus.
RNA viruses store their genome as RNA, instead of DNA. They cause a wide range of diseases in humans, from the common cold to more severe illnesses such as gastroenteritis, influenza, Ebola virus disease, measles and COVID-19.
The use of RNA (instead of DNA) by these viruses gives them unique properties. First, they all have a gene for an enzyme to copy the RNA genome, called an 'RNA-directed RNA polymerase' in the case of riboviruses. This enzyme is not found outside of these viruses, which makes it an attractive target for antiviral drugs. Second, unlike DNA, RNA can adopt specific shapes that allow the genome itself to carry out structural and enzymatic functions directly, even though it is not a protein or an enzyme in a conventional sense. All RNA viruses exploit this unique property of RNA in one way or another. At the same time, hosts (including humans) have evolved protein sensors to detect unique features of viral RNA in order to activate the immune system and fight RNA virus infections.
In order to better understand how RNA affects RNA virus replication, our laboratory borrows tools from biochemistry, molecular biology, virology, genomics, and bioinformatics. We also use these tools to design new types of antiviral drugs that can be used to block RNA virus growth, which is especially useful against new or emerging viruses for which conventional drugs or vaccines may not be available.