Scientist discovers how infection with the deadly Nipah virus takes hold

Everyone has seen it in the movies: a deadly virus breaks out of a remote locale and spreads like wildfire, causing devastation with worldwide consequences. Although frequently over-dramatized by Hollywood, it’s a real possibility— as evidenced by the recent Ebola outbreak, which saw cases appear in Europe and the Americas for the first time.

In the School for Global Animal Health at WSU Pullman, virologist Hector Aguilar-Carreno is hard at work making sure the deadly Nipah virus can’t do the same thing.

His work is urgent. With a mortality rate of 40% to 90%, Nipah virus is among the deadliest known—and no human vaccine or treatment exists. What’s more, it causes brain swelling that typically leaves survivors with persistent convulsions and brain damage. Although currently isolated to remote areas in Southeast Asia, the disease could be spread great distances by a single infected individual.

With funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the Department of Homeland Security, Aguilar-Carreno has developed new techniques to study how membrane fusion allows the virus to break through a cell’s defenses. Like burglars planning a break-in, one protein on the virus’s exterior senses an opportunity and signals another protein, which then starts fusing the virus to the healthy human cell…and the disease breaks in.

But now that Dr. Aguilar-Carreno is on to this viral burglar’s methods, scientists can begin finding ways to disrupt the Nipah virus’s protein signals—and eventually develop a drug to block the infection.