Human norovirus, an extremely contagious and hardy virus that spreads easily via contaminated food, water, or through person-to-person transmission, is the number one cause of acute gastroenteritis and food-borne illness.
Prevalent in the winter months, norovirus causes severe disease in those with immature or weakened immune systems such as young children and the elderly.
Globally, the virus accounts for 700 million infections and 220,000 deaths annually.
Kyle Todd, a doctoral student in the Department of Infectious Diseases, is using innovative methods to develop a system that can be used to develop a vaccine against Norovirus.
“After completing post-baccalaureate research in the fields of virology and immunology, I realized I wanted to conduct research in vaccine and therapeutic development,” he explains. “The Infectious Diseases PhD program at UGA appealed to me because of its strong background in translational virus research.”
Todd explains that, while norovirus causes disease on a global scale, it has been notoriously difficult to grow in the lab.
Since its discovery nearly 50 years ago, only two groups have been able to cultivate norovirus in the lab, current models are not suitable for vaccine development due to lack of safety testing and industry regulations.
Viruses lack the replication machinery necessary to proliferate. Viruses such as norovirus must therefore “hijack” components of a host cell in order to replicate.
Under the direction of his advisor, Dr. Ralph Tripp, Todd’s research aims to engineer a norovirus cell culture system that can be used for industrial-scale vaccine production.
Todd’s study uses host cells from an African green monkey (Vero), which has been previously used to produce vaccines against poliovirus, rotavirus, and influenza.
“Our lab has shown that moderate levels of norovirus replication can occur in Vero cells,” Todd says.
By removing certain cell defenses, Todd hopes to bolster the system he is developing.
“In order to enhance our model, we are removing barriers – such as virus sensing mechanisms – that are intended to safeguard the host cell. Without these barriers, we can elicit higher levels of virus replication,” Todd explains.
“This in turn will provide a cell culture system that can serve as a platform for norovirus vaccine production.”
This development of a translational cell culture system shows promise towards expanding the methods used to curb the impact of disease.
“Dissemination of this system within the research field will promote collaboration as we work towards a common goal,” he explains. “Additionally, engineering a cell line compliant with the needs of large pharmaceutical companies ensures that our work can be implemented on a global scale.”
After graduation, Todd intends to continue working in the field of viral vaccine development at a pharmaceutical company.