Protein Offers Potential Insight into West Nile, Zika and Dengue Viral Infections
Research into Schlafen protein could provide critical treatment insights
EL PASO, Texas (July 20, 2023) – Research at The University of Texas at El Paso may lead to a treatment for West Nile, dengue and Zika viruses, as well as a better way to predict a patient’s outcome with the viruses. The study on a promising protein is funded by a new $615,000 grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a branch of the National Institutes of Health.
“This research is important because no specific treatment and biomarker — or indicator of susceptibility to disease — is currently available for people who contract West Nile virus,” said Manuel Llano, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences and the principal investigator on the grant. “The NIH funds will allow us to explore a novel antiviral mechanism that could teach us more about how to treat and manage this difficult disease, as well as other mosquito-borne illnesses.”
West Nile virus is a pathogen that passes from birds to mosquitoes and then to humans. It has become more common in the United States in the last several years, according to Llano, and is a major concern given that there is currently no cure and the illness caused by the virus can sometimes be fatal.
West Nile is a member of a class of viruses — known as flaviviruses — that includes Zika, which can cause severe birth defects when pregnant people are infected, and dengue, which is prevalent in tropical climates.
Llano’s research team is responsible for a series of discoveries that paved the way for the new grant.
In 2016, Federico Valdez, a UTEP doctoral student and researcher, discovered that a protein in human cells has an impact on the spread of West Nile virus in cells. The protein — Schlafen 11 — is part of a family of proteins called Schlafen, German for “sleeping,” that have a range of functions, like causing cells to become dormant or regulating the ability of cells to multiply.
A second critical discovery came when another doctoral student researcher, Carlos Valenzuela, discovered that mice have a protein that functions much as the human Schlafen protein does. This meant that using mice as models could be used to understand the protein’s impact on the viruses in greater depth, Valenzuela said.
“As a father of two young daughters, it means a lot to me to help advance the treatment of West Nile because infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to it,” said Valenzuela. “I feel that I’m doing something to help the community.”
Additional co-principal investigators on the grant are Amy Wagler, Ph.D., a professor in UTEP’s Department of Mathematical Sciences, and Kathryn Hanley, Ph.D, a regents professor of virus evolutionary ecology at New Mexico State University.
Wagler, a member of UTEP’s Border Biomedical Research Center’s Bio-Statistics Unit, will work to analyze the data that emerges from the study. Hanley will support with modeling for the study.
About The University of Texas at El Paso
The University of Texas at El Paso is America’s leading Hispanic-serving University. Located at the westernmost tip of Texas, where three states and two countries converge along the Rio Grande, 84% of our 24,000 students are Hispanic, and half are the first in their families to go to college. UTEP offers 169 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degree programs at the only open-access, top-tier research university in America.
Last Updated on July 20, 2023 at 12:00 AM | Originally published July 20, 2023
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