NSERC-funded Brock research using insect viruses to benefit human health

The word “virus” usually evokes a sense of fear or foreboding, a bad thing to be avoided. But for Ian Patterson, a virus can be a lifesaver – under the right conditions.

The Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences and his team are investigating how the ribonucleic acid (RNA) in viruses that infect an insect can be manipulated to avoid infection and disease in humans.

Patterson has partnered with Associate Professor Fasséli Coulibaly at the Biomedicine Discovery Institute of Monash University in Australia on their project, “Characterizing an insect-specific virus to deliver RNA to target cells.”

Their project is supported by $206,450 in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC)’s Alliance International Grant.

The grant is part of a funding bundle announced by Minister of Transport Pablo Rodriguez Wednesday, March 13 on behalf of Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne.

Viruses act like packages containing genetic information. If those viral proteins are deconstructed, the virus’s genetic information can be replaced with molecules that benefit human health. Those beneficial molecules are then protected by the virus shell.

Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Ian Patterson (far right) sits on a lab chair holding up, and looking at, a clear box with light purple circles in the middle, while four students all in white lab coats standing behind him look at the box.

Brock Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Ian Patterson (far right) shows his students various virus samples as part of their research on a project he is co-leading. From left: Ishika Sharma (BSc ’23), a Biotechnology master’s student; Alec Chunta, an undergraduate student on Match of Minds award; Assmaa El Khal, a Biotechnology master’s student; and Joseph Muthoni, PhD student in Biological Sciences.

A protein on the virus enables it to invade a host cell through receptors on the cell membrane’s surface so that the cell receives the virus’s genome and becomes infected.

“We need to understand more about these virus proteins and entry mechanisms,” says Patterson. “The goal of this knowledge is to use the virus structure to package and deliver proteins that prevent or treat disease in humans.”

Coulibaly’s Australian team will be using state-of-the-art equipment to map out the structure and entry process of the viruses they’re studying and will send this information to Patterson and his lab.

Patterson is an expert in virus biology and reverse genetic systems, which involves deleting and mutating particular genes to understand how genes function within DNA or RNA sequences.

“I’m going to be manipulating the virus,” says Patterson. “Based on the structure, the Australian team will determine critical parts of the virus proteins, then I will make the mutation in the virus to confirm the function. It’s a complementary process, each of us providing essential tasks that the other person doesn’t do.”

By learning some of the structural biology techniques through their collaborators, he and his team can begin to use the electron microscope at the Brock-Niagara Validation, Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute (VPMI) for the research.

The long-term vision would be to “essentially use these viruses as sort of a drug delivery tool,” says Patterson.

He notes that so-called “beneficial viruses” are already being developed in Canada for certain cancer treatments and medicines.

“The results of our research will enhance our understanding of a viral pathway for virus infection and underpin a strategy to engineer the new entry protein,” says Patterson.

Acting Brock Vice-President, Research Michelle McGinn says she’s excited by the project’s potential.

“By connecting with international partners engaged in a complementary line of research and taking advantage of the state-of-the-art equipment located in the Brock–Niagara Validation, Prototyping and Manufacturing Institute, Dr. Patterson and his team are pursuing groundbreaking work that truly matters,” says McGinn. “It is phenomenal that they have identified an innovative approach to genetically engineer a virus to be beneficial for human health.”

Vance Badawey, Member of Parliament for Niagara Centre, says the “funding provided under the Alliance International Grant through the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council is essential for students who are looking to study with international partners.”

“These investments are important not only for Brock University, but for the Niagara region, as professors like Dr. Patterson continue to do groundbreaking work,” he says.

“Our government remains committed to funding innovative scientific research to tackle our toughest challenges,” says Chris Bittle, Member of Parliament for St. Catharines.

“By investing in research that explores RNA, we can better prepare ourselves against illness and disease,” he says. “It is exciting to see potentially groundbreaking research projects being undertaken right here in St. Catharines at Brock University.”

NSERC’s Alliance International Grant supports researchers in Canada to work with leading international researchers from the academic sector, and to establish and grow international research collaborations and projects that have a high potential for impact and of global importance and benefit to Canada.

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