Dr. Jacob Yount, PhD, Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbial Infection and Immunity, was awarded $1.8-million from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases for the grant, “Mechanisms of innate resistance to virus infections.” The funding extends through January, 2022.
“Once we’re infected with a virus like influenza, our bodies quickly turn on immunity proteins that slow down the replication of the virus,” says Dr. Yount. The goal of the grant is to investigate one of these immunity proteins, known as IFITM3, and to develop infection prevention approaches or therapies based on IFITM3. This single protein is particularly important for limiting the severity of influenza virus infections. Patients with defective IFITM3 due to a genetic mutation experience more life threatening illnesses as a result of the flu.
The new research will determine how IFITM3 blocks influenza virus infections. “We know that IFITM3 acts early in infections when a virus is trying to enter a cell,” reports Dr. Yount, “and that this is a different type of immune response from what is elicited by vaccines.”
The team has two goals. First, they will characterize a small piece of the protein that their early work indicates is essential for blocking infections, and that may be small enough to have potential use as a drug. Second, they will study cellular pathways that control the abundance of IFITM3 in cells. Increasing the level of IFITM3 in cells prior to infection, instead of after infection has already occurred, could potentially prevent flu infections.
IFITM3 stands for Interferon-Induced Transmembrane protein 3. This naturally produced protein is capable of blocking all strains of influenza virus that have been tested in laboratories, as well as many other viruses, such as Ebola virus and West Nile virus. Characterization and enhancement of these natural processes may provide the new tools that are needed to fight existing and emerging viral diseases.