The flu virus is one of the top ten causes of human deaths according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At Oklahoma State University’s Center for Veterinary Health Sciences, Shitao Li, Ph.D., is currently conducting biomedical research to develop new antiviral drugs to combat the flu virus.
“The flu virus is a highly transmissible pathogen that can cause epidemics and sometimes pandemics like the swine flu in 2009,” said Li, assistant professor in the Department of Physiological Sciences and investigator with the Oklahoma Center for Respiratory and Infectious Diseases. “The virus is also zoonotic which means it infects not only humans but animals as well such as poultry, pigs, horses, etc. So this study will not only benefit human health but will also have a great impact on agriculture.”
Li joined OSU in 2015. During his first year he has made great progress in establishing his laboratory and moving forward with his research. His team includes Lingyan Wang, Ph.D., postdoctoral candidate, and Girish Patil, a first year graduate student.
“Currently we are working on the interaction between the flu virus and the host defense,” added Li. “Specifically, we are studying the protein interactions between the host and the virus. We found that more than 300 host factors actually interact with the flu virus. So now we are focusing on one protein named PKP2. PKP2 is known as a cell junction protein and now we find it is also an antiviral protein.”
By doing a mechanistic analysis of this protein, Li’s team found that this protein restricts the virus by inhibiting the viral polymerase activity.
“In other words, PKP2 impedes viral replication and prevents the virus from spreading. Interestingly, PKP2 has a peptide which mimics one viral polymerase subunit, PB2,” continued Li. “This peptide competes with PB2 for binding to other viral polymerase subunits, thereby, disrupting the viral replication machinery. Now we are examining the antiviral efficacy of this peptide in human cells and mice.”
Li’s study is still far from clinical studies, but the preliminary results are promising.
“Before we test the peptide in mice, we will examine the effects of the peptide on viral infection in the tissue culture that includes human cells and mouse cells,” said Li. “Currently we are testing only one peptide and may modify this peptide in the future.
“With so many people affected by the flu virus, the most important thing in my lab is to discover new host defenses to the virus infection,” stated Li. “We are grateful to the Centers of Biomedical Research Excellence program under Dr. Lin Liu. The challenge for research is finding the funding, which a CoBRE grant has provided. The program includes not only funding but administrative support as well. I have two mentors in Drs. Liu and Clint Jones. As a junior faculty member, they have given me guidance on writing proposals, how to recruit students and how to train them. I really appreciate their help and support.”
Originally from China, Li earned his Ph.D. from Wuhan University in 2000. He plans to submit more proposals to continue funding his research.
“The most important thing in my lab is to discover new host defenses to the flu virus,” he concluded.
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