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Outsmarting Killer Viruses
Juliana Maxey-Allison | 10th Street

Juliana Maxey-Allison and Erica Ollmann Saphire.
Photo Bill Morris.  Click to enlarge.

Outwitting wily pathogens, the dangerous viruses and bacteria that can attack us is serious work. Happily, Dr. Erica Ollmann Saphire, who gave an illuminating talk on the subject at the Del Mar Foundation Talk on January 23, thinks creating vaccines and antivirals aimed at stopping these lethal pathogens is a serious adventure.

Dr. Saphire, Professor, Department of Immunology and Microbial Science at The Scripps Research Institute, TSRI and her collaborators analyze the structures of each protein a virus —specifically Ebola and Lassa—encodes. Earlier in her career Dr. Sapphire, who has received a long list of awards and is a member of many boards, helped solve the structure of one of the first antibodies of HIV. “Viruses, with their error-prone and rapid replication are constantly changing. At their core, however, they are extremely simple machines. The ones we work with encode only four or seven genes These structures become the roadmaps—or blueprints—to developing vaccines and treatments.”

Her interest in biology and the natural world grew out of family camping trips she took as a child to national parks and continued as she earned a double major in biochemistry and ecology in college. Her PhD is from TSRI in Macromolecular and Cellular Structure and Chemistry.

Through their investigative research into how pathogens are able to slip through our immune systems Dr. Saphire and her coworkers take on the task of designing the best defenses to thwart the spread of new strains of viruses. She showed pictures of molecular structures she described as “incredibly beautiful with internal symmetry. The structures we solve become like a topo map—with peaks and valleys illustrating where the electrons are dense, how the protein strand is knitted into a final shape, how the final shape moves and breathes in the course of its biological functions. I feel that nearly anything you might need to know about that molecule and its role in biology is written somewhere in that structure—if we are smart enough to figure it out.”



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