A Big Boost Against Viruses
In 2002 the SARS virus jumped from animals to humans and infected almost 8,000 people globally, causing more than 700 deaths. Recently, another virus—H5N1—has jumped from birds to humans. This virus could become highly aggressive and allow human-to-human transmission, leading to a worldwide influenza pandemic.
It’s hard to find a cure for a constantly mutating virus, so immunologist Dr. Eleanor Fish takes a different approach. Her focus isn’t on the virus itself, but on our immune system’s reaction to it. As the Canada Research Chair in Women’s Health and Immunobiology, Fish is working to create small-molecule drugs to give our immune systems a big boost to fight off viruses. These drugs aren’t focused on a specific virus, but on specific features of our immune system that will fight any infecting virus, making them a one-size-fits all solution.
Specifically, Fish studies interferons (IFNs), a family of antiviral proteins that help cells fight viruses by invoking responses in cells to attack the viruses at different stages in their life cycles. She is currently developing a type of super IFN with boosted antiviral activity.
Fish is also targeting other critical parts of the human host that viruses absolutely need for infection but that humans don’t really need for survival. Her strategy is to develop a panel of broad-spectrum antiviral drugs that are affordable, stable and can be distributed worldwide—especially to the developing world, which is most at risk for pandemic virus infections.
It’s important to note that men and women respond differently to infections. A key aspect of Fish’s research is to understand these sex differences in order to provide better treatments. Her studies of hormonal and chromosomal differences—and how these affect disease susceptibility—also have implications for autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis, which mostly affect females. By understanding what makes people susceptible to such diseases, Fish hopes to develop targeted drugs that will provide better treatment for both women and men, whether against a virus infection or an autoimmune disease.