A shot in the arm: K-State researchers make vaccine discovery

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Most of us have grown up going to the doctor and receiving vaccinations. Usually, all we thought about was how much the shot was going to hurt and if we would receive a lollipop afterwards. However, what we do not think about are the countless years of research and discoveries that are key to the creation of vaccines.

Pragyesh Dhungel, graduate student in microbiology, and Shuai Cao, post-doctoral fellow in biology, are the lead authors in a recent scientific discovery made at Kansas State. They specifically studied the vaccinia virus, which is a member of the poxvirus family.

“The main goal of our research is to understand how the virus infects a cell and how it survives inside the cell,” Dhungel said.

The messenger RNA, the template for producing proteins in all organisms, in the vaccinia virus has a unique sequence called the polyadenylation leader, or the poly(A) leader. It is not like the typical mRNA found in animal cells.

“What we found in this research was that this virus has a peculiar sequence in its messenger RNA,” Dhungel said. “Having this sequence helps the virus to selectively make more proteins for itself, without the host cell making proteins.”

Cao said the concept can be understood with an analogy.

“Look at mRNA like a fish. The poly(A) is like a tail. ‘Poxvirus fish’ has a tail-like feature on the head,” Cao said.

With this analogy, it is easier to understand how the poly(A) leader was unique to the poxvirus mRNA.

Since mRNA is the template to make proteins in an organism, finding that the sequence was different in this particular type of poxvirus can open the door to many medical opportunities.

“We are studying very basic mechanisms of how this virus replicates,” Zhilong Yang, assistant professor of biology, said. “It uses poly(A) leader in mRNA to help it produce more proteins. By knowing this basic mechanism, you can use this knowledge to develop vaccines and different therapies.”

This discovery is not a cure to anything, but it is a stepping stone to potential medical breakthroughs. Cao said their discovery, with further research and experimentation, can be used to create more efficient vaccines, as well as potential therapies for many types of cancers.

“No discovery is too small a discovery,” Mackenzie Thornton, sophomore in microbiology pre-med, said. “What they’re doing matters, and it’s actually really exciting.”

The researchers made it clear that in the scientific world, there is no immediate solution to problems. Scientific progress comes from the culmination of many different discoveries.

“The scientific discovery today may be translated into an application 20 to 30 years later,” Yang said.

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