Marc Johnson began his research career studying a rabies-like virus in fish. “Working with fish viruses is really cool research,” he notes, but there are just not a lot of people doing it,” and that sense of isolation was eventually too much. In search of collaboration and community, Johnson switched from fish viruses to HIV. Since then, the assistant professor in MU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology has dedicated his research efforts to the study of these related humans viruses. He and his collaborators have made great progress in understanding how the HIV virus works in order to develop new therapeutics to combat the disease.
In a back corner of the University of Missouri’s medical building, a few floors above the hospital and tucked away to the right, Habib Zaghouani watches a cellular war. He has been up there for seven years, with an army of graduate students and a colony of mice, trying to understand why our bodies attack us and how we can make them stop.
While scientists have developed ways to treat HIV, they have yet to develop a cure for the devastating disease because they have not been able to kill every last infected cell. “HIV has our immune system’s ‘number.’ Our immune system cannot figure out that those are infected cells and that it needs to kill them.” The protein responsible for HIV virus replication is the Gag protein. Much of Johnson’s current work is focused on understanding how Gag orchestrates this replication, as this knowledge could be used to uncover a treatment capable of triggering the immune system’s response.
Jason Ellis leads the project that examines how a T cell decides whether to live or die after fighting an infection. These memory T cells, the ones that remain, keep the same illness from happening all over again, and vaccines are based on this same principle.
Habib Zaghouani, along with his team of graduate and post-doctoral fellows, is working on four different projects in the lab. The first examines why newborn babies are so susceptible to infection, the second tries to understand how the immune system’s memory works, while the third and fourth aim at developing treatments for specific diseases: type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis.