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Mason researcher part of team awarded $2.5 million grant for investigating remedies to deadly virus

August 21, 2018   /   by John Hollis


A George Mason University researcher is heading a scientific team that has received a sizable Department of Defense grant to combat the threat of a South American disease that can cause long-term neurological problems and even death.

Kylene Kehn-Hall, an associate professor in Mason’s School of Systems Biology and the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, is collaborating with Jonathan Dinman from the University of Maryland and Jonathan Jacobs from QIAGEN, a worldwide provider of molecular technologies and genomics analysis solutions, on a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Defense Threat Reduction Agency with the goal of developing remedies to the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus (VEEV).

“It’s important from a public health standpoint,” Kehn-Hall said. “There are still people who get this virus on an annual basis.”

The disease, which attacks the neurons of the brain, can be fatal but often causes brain swelling that can leave those infected with long-term neurological issues such as seizures and personality disorders.

The virus, which was first identified in Venezuela, often starts with flu-like symptoms such as high fevers, headaches and encephalitis. Individuals with weaker immune systems, such as the very young and elderly, frequently become severely ill or die following exposure to the virus.

A large-scale outbreak of VEEV occurred in Colombia in September 1995, resulting in more than 14,000 human cases and 26 deaths, according to media reports.

The threat of VEEV has recently become more pronounced as the mosquitoes that carry the virus extend their reach, driven primarily by increases in globalization and rising temperatures from global climate change.

Jacobs and his colleagues recently detected and sequenced a sub-type of VEEV in the Florida Everglades—fortunately, the disease was found in mosquitoes that do not typically feed on humans.

“The long-term goal of this work is to identify critical molecular events that can be therapeutically targeted to prevent the disease’s spread,” Kehn-Hall said.

She and her team hope to lay the foundation for an eventual therapeutic treatment by identifying transcriptomic (RNA-based) and proteomic (protein-based) events that help the virus attack and kill brain neurons. The goal of the research is to identify the mosquito-borne pathogens’ pathways to those brain cells and develop a solution that prevents the virus’s growth.

“When brain cells die, bad things happen,” Dinman said. “Our goal is to come up with a remedy that won’t stop the virus, but one that will stop this pathology.”