Zoonotic diseases account for a majority of newly emerging infectious disease threats in humans. Understanding the key attributes of both the host and virus allowing viruses to cross-species barriers is critical knowledge to combatting this problem. We work on a wide array of emerging viral pathogens to understand unique adaptations to their primary host and what barriers they need to overcome to infect new hosts. With this knowledge we can help fight the pathogen in the primary host and prevent new outbreaks in differing hosts.
Porcine delta coronavirus is a recently emerged coronavirus that underwent a transition from avian species to mammals. We utilize PDCoV as a model system to understand the host responses to a newly emerged coronavirus pathogen. This knowledge is critical in fighting coronavirus pandemics such as the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and for other circulating coronaviruses that may make the leap to humans or agriculturally important animal species in the near future. A combination of bioinformatic and high throughput genomic-based approaches allows for the observation of many host genes at once during infection. Techniques such as RNAseq, comparative transcriptomics, and genomic CRISPR knockout are enhancing our understanding of the pathology associated with emerging diseases.
Hepatitis E Virus (HEV) is an emerging zoonotic disease afflicting developing countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas where large outbreaks occur due to lack of sanitary drinking water. In developed countries in Europe and the Americas HEV is a zoonotic pathogen shown to pass primarily from pigs and pork products to humans. While generally healthy adults can fight off HEV, in pregnant women there is up to a 30% mortality rate and HEV can cause chronic hepatitis in immunocompromised individuals. There are currently 7 known genotypes within the Orthohepevirus A species (of human health concern). Genotype-1 infects humans and is found in Asia and Africa, genotype 2 also specifically infects humans and is more common in Mexico. Genotypes 3 and 4 are known to infect humans as well as swine, deer, rabbits, and mongoose. Genotypes 5, 6, and 7 infect animals including wild boar and camel. Orthohepevirus B-D infect chickens, bats, and ferrets, respectively, but are not known to infect humans.
Historically HEV has been difficult to propagate in cell culture and animal models were limited to pigs and chickens, limiting much of our understanding of the molecular aspects of HEV infection. Part of our ongoing research focuses on understanding cross species transmission of the virus, the factors required for efficient virus growth, and the creation of better small animal models to study this virus. Using this knowledge we will discover more about how HEV interacts with its hosts and create therapies to treat it.
The ability to rapidly create an appropriate immune response to emerging pathogens is an important weapon in combatting disease associated with newly emerging disease outbreaks. Newly emerging nanoparticle technologies allow us to vaccinate naïve hosts and to modulate the immune response to viral antigens relatively quickly. Identifying new nanoparticle compositions that generate protective immune responses in humans and livestock are an important technological advances to protect human health and the human food supply.