All viruses contain RNA, and it is a genome, often made from RNA, that allows viruses to replicate and spread. Most vaccines use an attenuated version of a virus to build up the body’s immunity, so that when exposed to the actual virus, the immune system will recognise it and be able to defend against it.
However this approach requires high containment production facilities and is not always effective – the attenuated vaccines can themselves sometimes produce infection, and they are difficult to transport and store, particularly in hot climates.
Dave’s group are looking to create ‘empty’ virus shells that mimic the atomic structure of viruses but contain no RNA. Exposing the immune system to these empty shells would produce a response and induce immunity to the virus without any risk of infection. The group have already successfully produced a potential ‘empty’ vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease, which is currently being trialled in livestock in South Africa, and are now looking to develop the approach to work against polio.
Whilst Dave’s research focusses on specific viruses, his findings are also contributing to our wider understanding of viruses as a whole. There’s a lot of variety when it comes to viruses. They’ve been around for many millions of years, so they’ve had a fairly long time to adapt and evolve. But whilst viruses differ in terms of their structure, effect, and components, just like other species they can be grouped into families based on shared characteristics.
When it comes to viruses, understanding the bigger picture is vital. Dave observes: “Knowing the structure of viruses and viral elements is pivotal to combatting particular infections, but that knowledge can also help us to predict the structure and treatment options for other diseases.
We can study how the structure changes between different viruses and virus families, and as we build up that wider understanding, we become better equipped to anticipate what to expect, so that when we come to look at tackling another virus, be it an existing pathogen or something entirely new, we already have a base level of understanding which we can build on.”
Both Dave and Jon are at the forefront of efforts to track the evolution of viruses and the relationships between different families so that we can build up an evolutionary family tree. The team have solved the structure of many different viruses and virus components – some extremely ancient and some far newer. Their work is helping to shape our understanding of the viral world and providing us with the insight to respond to future outbreaks in a quick and effective way.
Exploring the atomic structure of viruses is key to developing more effective medical responses, both to existing pathogens and to those that may emerge in the future. Viruses are as varied as they are pervasive, but the work of scientists like Jon and Dave is helping to create a clearer picture of how they operate and evolve. And in this way, science will continue to make viruses a little less mysterious, and a lot easier to manage.