Purdue receives $6 million to study West Nile virus family

October 20, 1999

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Structural biologists at Purdue University have received a $6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study a family of viruses that includes the West Nile virus.

The studies may help determine ways to combat the West Nile-like virus that has caused numerous illnesses and at least five deaths in the New York region.

The researchers will examine the viruses in atomic detail to determine how they assemble their genetic material and interact with human cells to cause infection. The results may prove useful in developing drugs that prevent infection by similar viral pathogens, said Richard J. Kuhn, associate professor of biological sciences.

"Very little is known structurally about these viruses," Kuhn said. "What we can determine about one can be extrapolated to help us understand the structure of other viruses in the family, such as West Nile and West Nile-like viruses."

The five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will allow the group to determine the three-dimensional structure of several types of viruses, including those in the Flavivirus family, a group of RNA viruses that includes the yellow fever virus, hepatitis C virus and the West Nile virus. The studies at Purdue will focus on yellow fever virus and hepatitis C virus.

The Purdue group also will study the structure and assembly in a related family of viruses called Togaviruses by examining rubella virus, which causes German measles, and will also analyze Rous Sarcoma virus, human papilloma virus, and several important plant viruses.

"Historically, these viruses have been very difficult to study because they are dangerous and difficult to grow in cell cultures," Kuhn said. "Also, systems to manipulate them have not been available. We can now examine the properties of these viruses in a number of different systems using only portions of the virus, thereby eliminating the need for live viruses in the study."

The researchers will use a combination of X-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance, cryo-electron microscopy and image reconstruction procedures to obtain highly magnified images and three-dimensional structures of the viruses. This approach allows researchers to combine low-resolution images obtained from cryo-electron microscopy with high-resolution images from X-ray studies to obtain images that show the precise position of each atom in the virus. The group at Purdue was among the first to combine these techniques.

The researchers also will employ molecular biology and biochemistry techniques to gain insights into the chemical and biological activity that occurs when the virus infects a human cell, Kuhn said.

The grant supports six different laboratories at Purdue. Michael Rossmann, the Hanley Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, is principal investigator on the grant. Rossmann is internationally recognized for his pioneering work in modeling the structure of viruses. In 1985, his group became the first to solve the structure of an animal virus when it mapped the three-dimensional structure of a common cold virus.

Co-principal investigators are Tim Baker, professor of biological sciences; Alan Friedman, assistant professor of biological sciences; Kuhn; Carol Post, associate professor of medicinal chemistry; and Thomas Smith, professor of biological sciences.

Sources: Richard J. Kuhn, (765) 494-1164,

Michael Rossmann, (765) 494-4911,

Writer: Susan Gaidos, (765) 494-2081; susan_gaidos@uns.purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@uns.purdue.edu

Related Web site:
Structural Virology at Purdue

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