UNM doctors find the weak spots in viruses

Posted at: 10/29/2012 8:45 AM
By: Heather Mills, KOB Eyewitness News 4

Groundbreaking medical research is being done at UNM's Cancer Center.

Researchers are behind a second generation HPV vaccine that's just been licensed to a local company and is moving toward clinical trials.

It's called a VLP, or virus-like particle. It has near endless possibilities. Think of it as the empty shell of a virus, and since many viruses have similar structures, it can be used universally.

 "A lot of viruses have Achilles heels," says Dr. Bryce Chackerian, PhD, University of New Mexico Associate Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology. "There are parts of a virus that always stay the same because they're really important for the virus to replicate."

It's those pieces; the parts the virus can't vary; that doctors Chackerian and Peabody take and stick onto the VLP.

Dr. David Peabody, PhD, University of New Mexico Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology said, "We can take that virus and essentially, make it look to the immune system, like a human pathogen."

Which in turn can be used to build an immune response. A vaccine, without the side effects.

"One possibility of an approach like this would be to make a universal flu vaccine," Dr. Peabody said.

"A VLP makes a really great vaccine because it's very safe because it doesn't replicate like a virus. It can't infect anyone but to the immune system, it looks exactly like a virus particle," added Dr. Chackerian.

Not just safer, but faster, just like in the movies.

"I think most virologists would say 'Contagion' was fiction, in terms of, it was highly fictitious in terms of how rapidly the vaccine was, in that movie, actually developed. We think our technology would allow that vaccine to essentially be made on that time scale," said Dr. Peabody.