CEND Hosts 6th Annual Bay Area Symposium on Viruses
The Annual Bay Area Symposium on Viruses was held on Friday, May 27th in the Li Ka Shing Auditorium on UC Berkeley’s main campus. This was the 6th year of the symposium, which brought together approximately 300 members of the Bay Area virology community for a series of scientific talks by faculty, industry representatives, post-docs, and students, as well as a poster session and networking opportunities.
The morning session featured talks from UC Berkeley and UCSF faculty researchers, as well as scientists at the Novartis and the Blood Systems Research Institute (BSRI), located in San Francisco. Professor James Hurley, a structural biologist in UC Berkeley’s Molecular and Cell Biology Department, discussed his group’s research effort into the mechanism of how HIV selects and packages the viral RNA for new virions, separating out the viral nucleic acids from the far more abundant human RNA. Dr. Steven Deeks, a professor and clinical researcher at SF General Hospital discussed his ground-breaking work on leveraging the immune system to find and eliminate HIV infected T-cells, a potential path to a cure. Dr. Deeks drew parallels between the recent explosion of research and new treatments in cancer immunotherapy and the potential to apply similar approaches to address HIV and other persistent viral infections.
Dr. Amy Kistler, a research scientist at the Emeryville location of the Novartis Institutes of Biomedical Research, presented the story of a fascinating hunt to identify the cause of Thieler’s disease, a hepatitis like disease of horses. Although known for over 100 years, it was not until Dr. Kistler joined with veterinary colleagues to study a particular outbreak on a horse farm in Nevada that the source of this disease was finally found. Sleuthing through the chain of transmission and utilizing the massively parallel techniques of genomics, transcriptomics, and bioinformatics ultimately identified a likely culprit: a novel virus in the Flaviviridae family.
The ongoing outbreak of another flaivivirus, Zika, in Latin America, and its inevitable arrival in the continental U.S. poses a significant challenge for the safety of blood supply, a major issue for BSRI, a research center dedicated blood supply safety and informed policy. Dr. Marion Lanteri, an investigator at BSRI, presented how the blood donation and supply network could also be turned into a powerful tool for studying Zika’s epidemiology and natural history. She described how BSRI is about to launch a study that will follow 130 Zika-positive donors from Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas to characterize key questions about the virus’s persistence and pathogenesis in the host, issues that still remain unclear. The example of similar studies of other arboviruses, West Nile Virus and Dengue, as well as recent non-human primate studies, give some clues to what we might find with Zika.
The discussion of Zika continued at the beginning of the afternoon session with a panel that included Dr. Lanteri, Professor Eva Harris from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, Professor Lark Coffey from UC Davis, and Dr. Daphne Ma, a Gilead research scientist. Dr. Harris, who has spent years studying Dengue, described how her lab and the research group she leads in Nicaragua have turned to Zika to help address the crises. Dr. Ma introduced Gilead’s new emerging and neglected disease research program, and how the research group was considering how to tackle Zika. Dr. Coffey discussed some of the emerging evidence regarding the ability of Zika virus to jump into new mosquito vectors, and addressed the audience’s questions about genetically engineered and Wolbachia-based approaches to controlling these mosquitoes. However, because of the unexpected reemergence and unanticipated symptomology of Zika, there were far more questions than answers.
The rest of the afternoon session featured talks from Gilead Sciences, Stanford, and UC Davis. Dr. Christine Livingstone, a research virologist at Gilead, presented new insights in potential targets for Hepatitis B therapeutics. Hepatitis B, which chronically infects over 250 million people worldwide, remains incurable. However, Dr. Livingstone and colleagues have identified the role of a cryptically titled “X” protein of the virus, and how it functions in the transcription of the virus’s genome. These insights could be a route to a cure.
Dr. Bonnie Maldonado, a Stanford pediatric infectious disease specialist, talked about her work as part of the global effort to eradicate poliovirus. While we get tantalizingly close to eliminating the wild virus, the live attenuated virus used in the Sabin vaccine is shed after vaccination and has shown the potential to revert to a virulent form, threatening eradication. Dr. Maldonado has been studying whether moving to the inactivated Salk vaccine form will eventually result in successful elimination of vaccine-derived virus as well. Studies in Zimbabwe and Mexico have provided insight into the impacts on circulating live vaccine-derived virus of reduced immune function and introduction of Sabin vaccine in a Salk vaccine-exposed population.
Dr. Jonna Mazet, a professor at UC Davis and a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist, talked about her work with the USAID’s PREDICT program – an effort to characterize those pathogens circulating in animal populations with the potential to cause outbreaks. Dr. Mazet described how the project is not only providing a global baseline of information about circulating potentially epidemic viruses, but also enhancing capacity around the world for disease surveillance and management.
The symposium also featured competitively selected short talks from post-docs Robert Rawle of Steven Boxer’s lab at Stanford, Shahzada Khan of Shomyseh Sanjabi’s lab at the Galdstone Institutes, and Michel Tasseto of Raul Andino’s lab at UCSF, as well as graduate student Sarah Gilbertson from Britt Glaunsinger’s lab at UC Berkeley. The symposium served as a nucleating event for the Bay Area Virus Network, or Bayviro, a constellation of scientists, engineers, and clinician researchers in and around the San Francisco bay who are working on virology, host-pathogen interactions, and control of human an animal virus infections. The group’s website, Bayviro.org, serves as an online resource, forum, and platform for connecting investigators at universities, companies, and research institutes throughout the region.