UVM Medical School professor pivots to COVID research (video)
Across the country, researchers are shifting their focus to study SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. I recently spoke to a researcher right in our backyard who made this shift.
“Because the whole school shut down during the quarantine, I was left with a lot of curiosity and time to work on this,” said Dr. Dev Majumdar, Assistant Professor of Surgery at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine.
Although not a virologist, Dr. Majumdar is an RNA biologist with an interest in immunology. SARS-CoV-2 is an RNA virus, meaning its genetic information is stored in the nucleic acid RNA rather than DNA. As a result, many of the proteins encoded by the virus somehow interact with RNA, making this research a great fit for Dr. Majumdar’s interests.
He and his colleagues investigated how interactions between 27 SARS-CoV-2 proteins and host RNA might contribute to the virus’s ability to interfere with the host immune system, the results of which were published in the journal Cell in October.
Coronaviruses are unique viruses and understanding the “stealthy” ways SARS-CoV-2’s proteins give rise to its unusual behavior, extreme transmissibility, and infectivity is critical. Over the last 40 years, researchers have written what Dr. Majumdar calls the “first draft” on coronaviruses — the basics.
“The big project,” he says, “is to come up with the next draft of what the coronavirus is doing so that we can develop great antivirals and predict how the virus will behave as it continues to evolve and continues to be a public health problem.”
His study of the SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins showed that four proteins block key host cellular processes, effectively shutting down the part of our immune system that signals invasion by a foreign entity and keeps the virus from replicating. With this novel information, Dr. Majumdar is testing whether any drugs might bind to and prevent these proteins from interfering with our immune system. His research showed that each protein working individually significantly reduces our immune response, therefore finding a drug that targets and blocks the activity of even one protein could prove an effective way to treat COVID-19.
Aside from its results, one thing about Dr. Majumdar’s article that struck me was his systematic approach to investigating the role of these proteins in COVID-19. Noting this, I asked him if he feels the U.S. has developed a “pandemic model” should a future pandemic occur; in other words, do we have a systematic, efficient method of investigating a new virus so as to quickly obtain information and roll out a treatment?
“I want to give you a hopeful answer, but I suspect not,” he said.
Much comes down to funding.
“I think it will take courage and the wisdom of policymakers to realize that putting in the resources for viruses that have not yet posed a threat might really change the world.”
If we can get the funding, however, we know we have people to do the job, he added.
To watch my full interview with Dr. Majumdar, please click here.
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