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Research discovery shows viruses can ‘hijack’ cellular process in order to block immune response

Queen’s and McGill University have found that viruses, (small microbes that cause diseases such as the common cold or COVID-19) can ‘hijack’ an existing molecular process in the cell in order to block the block the body’s antiviral immune response.

The results of the study have been published in the journal Molecular Cell.

As the current COVID-19 pandemic has proved, viral infection is a significant threat to the health of humans as well as livestock, pets, and plants. Discovery of a potentially druggable process that is hijacked by the virus to facilitate viral infection could have significant health and financial benefits to society.

This discovery is a breakthrough in the fields of immunobiology and gene expression, and further research will determine if targeting this cellular mechanism could be used to more effectively treat viral infections.

To conduct their study the researchers looked at how healthy cells control the levels of the molecules known as ‘Interferon-ß’ or ‘Interferon beta'. These molecules are used for communication between cells to trigger the protective defenses of the immune system that help eradicate pathogens, such as viral microbes. This communication between cells is essential for a functioning immune system. 

The researchers discovered a molecular process used by the virus that blocks the synthesis of Interferon-ß, therefore blocking the immune system.

Dr Seyed Mehdi Jafarnejad, Principal Investigator from the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University, explains: “Our study has found that certain viruses “hijack” this natural process in order to neutralize Interferon-ß and block the immune system, resulting in unrestrained viral infection which can make people incredibly sick.

“We hope this new understanding of how viruses can hijack existing cellular processes in the body will lead to better treatments of viral infections and ultimately save lives.”

Professor Nahum Sonenberg, Gilman Cheney Chair in Biochemistry at McGill University, said: “My lab was fortunate to continue our collaboration with Mehdi Jafarnejad to discover how the mRNA translational repressor, 4EHP, on which we reported first in 1998, inhibits the production of the host defense protein, interferon. This work is likely to have important implications for the understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 evades the human defense response to the virus.”

The next step for the research is to study if managing this process could be used for successful treatment of various types of viruses, including SARS-CoV-2.

The research was funded by The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, The Terry Fox Research Institute, Medical Research Council, and New Frontiers in Research Fund Exploration.

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