Enlisting viruses for a good cause

CedarsScience
May 17, 2012

After enduring eons of suffering inflicted by viruses, humans are harnessing these infective agents to do good, not evil. That’s the mission of the new Viral Vector Core at Cedars-Sinai’s Regenerative Medicine Institute.

Directed by Vaithi Arumugaswami, MVSc, PhD, this facility uses viruses as couriers, or vectors, to ferry experimental genes into living cells for basic research and development of potential therapies. This process takes advantage of viruses’ ability to invade cells and turn them into factories that produce more viruses.

Launched in October 2011, with its newly arrived director and support staff, the facility is poised for further expansion.

"The demand is high," said Arumugaswami, who works with more than a dozen principal investigators at the Medical Center. Among the disorders they are studying are amyotrophic lateral sclerosis ("Lou Gehrig’s disease"), Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, cancer and hepatitis C.

Viral vectors are created by removing genes from a virus and inserting experimental genes to replace them. This "package" is then inserted into a cell, which generates more viruses carrying the new genes. These altered viruses are collected, purified and concentrated into precise doses.

Researchers use these viruses to study how genes may induce tumors or suppress them, help cells fight off infections or effect other changes. They may also engineer genes to use in treatments.

"The Viral Vector Core is essential for so many of the scientists working at Cedars-Sinai," said Clive Svendsen, PhD, director of the Regenerative Medicine Institute. "Vaithi is an outstanding virologist and one of our newest recruits to the department. We are lucky that he has devoted so much time to launching this new venture."

In his own research, Arumugaswami focuses on hepatitis C, a widespread, serious viral liver disease that may lurk for years in a human body before causing symptoms. He is trying to modify the genes of this virus to make it less pathogenic so that it can form the basis of a vaccine. In another line of attack, working with mouse models, he is engineering liver stem cells with hepatitis C virus-resistant factors to facilitate regeneration of hepatitis C damaged livers.

The Viral Vector Core can provide "ready-to-use," preclinical-grade vectors with a range of capabilities, including fluorescent markers, or custom engineer them to an investigator’s specifications. On request, Arumugaswami will also consult with researchers to help them determine the best viruses to use. Although the facility works mainly with vectors derived from lentiviruses, adeno-associated viruses and adenoviruses, it will also consider special requests for other vectors.

Photos: In this view (top) of mammalian cells infected with a human virus, the virus genetic materials, in red, are visualized by fluorescent microscopy; the cell nuclei are shown in blue. The Viral Vector Core, directed by Vaithi Arumugaswami, MVSc, PhD, uses viruses to ferry experimental genes into cells.