How Do Viruses Infect? Deciphering The Dynamic That Hijacks Our Health

Viruses are hijackers: They take over infected cells’ protein-making machinery, creating new, infectious viral proteins. And can be seen in the current outbreak of coronavirus (COVID 19), successful virus can be very dangerous indeed.

Dr. Noam Stern-Ginossar and her team in the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Molecular Genetics are using innovative methods to study how viruses come to dominate the infected cell’s protein production machinery. These methods, and the insights they provide, may help scientists and their clinical partners develop future anti-viral treatments.

Dr. Stern-Ginossar uses a deep-sequencing technique called “ribosome profiling” to track the process by which a ribosome reads the proteins’ genetic templates and produce proteins. Revealing the “what, when, where, and how” of protein production, ribosome profiling enables scientists to determine the identity and the relative levels of translation for each protein during the course of infection.

Recent work in the Stern-Ginossar lab revealed how a common modification to RNA – a sort of “sticker” at a particular point on the genetic instructions — helps viruses successfully infect cells. This modification, which occurs frequently in both viral and human RNA, “turns down” the production of interferon, a substance that is released when a virus invades a cell and which instructs other cells to prepare for a viral attack. Interferon needs strict control measures: When produced in very high levels, it can kill the cell.

Dr. Stern-Ginossar’s research, which was performed in collaboration with departmental colleagues Prof. Jacob Hanna and Dr. Schraga Schwartz, and was recently published in Nature Immunology, reveals a novel target for the development of anti-viral medications. Such medications might be designed to specifically intercept the RNA modification that lowers interferon production. This could potentially provide a drug-based mechanism for ramping up the anti-viral response in cells that have been infected.

Dr. Noam Stern-Ginossar is supported by the Skirball Chair in New Scientists, the American Committee for the Weizmann Institute of Science 70th Anniversary Lab, the Alan and Laraine Fischer Foundation, and the European Research Council.

About the Weizmann Institute

The Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, is one of the world’s top-ranking multidisciplinary research institutions. Noted for its wide-ranging exploration of the natural and exact sciences, the Institute is home to scientists, students, technicians and supporting staff. Institute research efforts include the search for new ways of fighting disease and hunger, examining leading questions in mathematics and computer science, probing the physics of matter and the universe, creating novel materials and developing new strategies for protecting the environment.

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