October - November 2013
“For my graduate studies, I wanted to think about global health problems from a unique perspective. My research project is centered upon understanding how insects fight viral infections. At first glance, the insect immune system seems to have nothing to do with preventing human disease, but some viruses have complex methods of transmission. For example, mosquitoes become infected with Dengue Fever Virus when they feed off an infected person. The infection spreads from the gut to the salivary glands in the mosquito. When the mosquito feeds again, Dengue Fever Virus in the saliva can be transmitted to a new human host, causing fever, aches, and a rash. Many other viruses, such as West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus, also are transmitted from insects to humans. Surprisingly little is known about how insects respond to viral infections. To complicate the matter further, viruses use various strategies to prevent its hosts from detecting and eliminating its presence. By understanding how insects detect and respond to viruses, we could potentially help insects better eliminate a viral infection. As a result, we could prevent viral infections in people without treating them directly.
In order to cause infection, viruses need to grow within cells of the human or insect host. My research is focused on understanding how insects are able to recognize that they have been infected by a virus. In other words, I want to identify the molecular sensors of viral infection. In humans, these sensors are responsible for activating the immune system, which then eradicate the infection. If we can identify these sensory proteins in insects and explain their functions, we may be able to generate antiviral compounds that would make insects more resistant to viral infections. The need for these types of antiviral strategies may soon become more important in the USA, as recent global warming trends have resulted in the northern migration of tropical insects that harbor dangerous viruses (e.g. Dengue Fever Virus).
The research environment at Harvard is ideally suited for me to achieve my goal of uncovering antiviral strategies that operate in insects. For example, my laboratory has collaborative relationships with several research groups on campus that complement and expand our expertise in host-virus interactions and insect genetics. Few research organizations worldwide would provide me with the cross-disciplinary skills needed to perform my work, and I am thrilled to report that we have made excellent progress in this area. I have discovered a novel means to screen through the genome of insects to identify genes important for controlling viral infections. My approach is much faster than any previously reported and will allow me to make discoveries at a pace never before achieved. It is my hope that we can apply my newfound discoveries to better understand the immune responses that insects make to fight infections such as Dengue Fever Virus.”