University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers at the Nebraska Center for Virology want to stop the next pandemic before it starts. Here are three people who want to keep another virus from upending society: a scientist, a graduate student and the founder of NCV.
Meet someone who is absolutely certain he knows what the next epidemic or pandemic will be. His name is Eric Weaver, Ph.D., and he is a UNL biology professor who does research at NCV.
“I know what’s next,” Weaver said. “It’s influenza. There hasn’t been a year on record where we don’t have it. There are hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide. On average, 30,000 people in the United States die from influenza on a normal year. That’s just something that we have for some reason found OK.”
Weaver has decided that it’s not OK, and he has devoted his career to battling viruses. His current research is based on one key idea: Delve back into the flu’s genetic past to avoid the matching game. Every year, epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization pick a strain of the flu to inoculate people with, hoping that they correctly guess which strain is going to be particularly virulent that year. Sometimes they guess wrong, like they did last year. Flu shots help, but Weaver puts their effectiveness at about 74%.
Everyone knows that part of the problem is that the flu mutates constantly. Weaver’s research aims to address that.
“The idea is to design a vaccine through an analysis of the genetic code of influenza,” Weaver said. “We analyze and string together short stretches of the flu virus proteins, termed epitopes. By selecting and stringing together the most common epitopes, we are likely recreating ancestral forms of the flu, and these ancestral sequences can be used to create broadly protective vaccines. So far, our studies indicate that these vaccines do, indeed, induce protection against a wide array of divergent flu viruses.”
The goal: a vaccine that protects against multiple, if not all, strains of the flu and lasts a lifetime. Initial tests in mice and swine show that the idea works, and Weaver and his team are now waiting for funding to take the testing to the next level.
Diseases don’t always receive funding proportional to the number of people they impact, Weaver noted. Every year, a flu epidemic or pandemic has a significant impact in terms of lost working hours and burden on the health care system, in addition to thousands of deaths, primarily among the older population.
“When you’re talking about someone who’s elderly dying from the flu, they shouldn’t be dismissed,” Weaver said. “Why is a day in the life of someone who’s older less valuable than any other day for any other person?”
While he had hoped never to see a pandemic like COVID-19, Weaver knows what he wants people to learn from this experience.
“The main message that I want people to take away from this pandemic is: Let’s not forget,” said Weaver. “Let’s not brush this aside once we get through it. Future pandemics are inevitable, so it’s important to fund the science and do really comprehensive research now, so that in a future pandemic, we have a head start.”
What did you do with your summer vacation?
Four years ago, before she had even earned her bachelor’s degree, Brianna Bullard was able to answer: “Develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.”
In 2016, Bullard was one of two undergraduate students selected out of 500 for a summer immersion experience at NCV. Zika was raging at the time, and she wanted to help fight it. After her work to develop the vaccine, Bullard was hooked. She had found what she wanted to do.
While the Zika vaccine worked splendidly in mice, it never received the funding needed to test it in humans. Undaunted, Bullard returned to UNL, this time for graduate school. She’s back at the NCV working with Weaver to create a better flu vaccine. In May 2021, she plans to graduate with a Ph.D. in virology and find a job where she can continue doing research to produce better vaccines.
So what’s it like studying viruses during the COVID-19 pandemic?
“It’s definitely made me appreciate my decision to go into virology,” said Bullard. “I originally wanted to do science that in the end would help people. I got lucky that I ended up in a lab that works on vaccine development. What can get more applied than that? I want my research to help people, to help the world.”
“The story of the Nebraska Center for Virology is really about donors. Donors made this happen.”
Charles Wood, Ph.D., is a UNL biology and biochemistry professor and NCV researcher who holds the Lewis Lehr/3M University Professorship. He helped found the NCV in 2000, bringing together scientists from Creighton University and the University of Nebraska Medical Center to study viruses in humans, plants and animals.
The NCV story begins with UNL alumnus and businessman Lewis “Lew” Lehr. In 1986, Lehr had endowed a chair in molecular genetics and biology, hoping to attract a top-notch scientist to the University of Nebraska. It worked. In 1996, Wood came to UNL, in part because the fund supported by Lehr through the University of Nebraska Foundation would enable him to take the first steps toward starting the NCV and also to continue his work fighting HIV in Africa.
“I came here with the goal of building a program that Lew had envisioned, focused on human genetics, more biomedical,” Wood said. “I was able to use the initial support to recruit a couple of researchers in virology, expanding and supporting the work that I do.”
The fellowship money enabled Wood to lay the groundwork for a strong research program, which then meant he was able to successfully apply for a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. The NCV was off to a great start, but Wood knew it needed a building of its own. He wanted to bring together the UNL scientists who were scattered all over campus in different buildings because they were affiliated with different departments.
Another donor stepped forward to make that happen. Thanks to Hastings, Nebraska, businessman Ken Morrison (1921-2015), the NCV brought together all of the UNL scientists in 2008 in the new Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center, which was expanded in 2014.
“We were able to build a cluster strength in plant, animal and human virus research and to build a very strong training environment for the next generation of researchers and scientists,” said Wood. “We are known as one of the strongest virology programs in the country.”
The NCV’s projects are varied and include everything from plant defensive systems to viruses that attack swine, cows and other animals. One lab has developed a vaccine for porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome virus which has been licensed to a pharmaceutical company for commercialization. Another team is studying a smallpox-like virus and how it evades the host’s immune system. Human diseases under the microscope at NCV include HIV, herpes, many strains of influenza, human cancer viruses like the papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer, and emerging diseases such as Zika.
“The environment is wonderful for the research,” Wood said of the Ken Morrison Life Sciences Research Center. “And I think that plays a big part in our successes.”