Dr. Anil Kumar, University of Saskatchewan
Can you describe your area of research and how it is helping address a health-related issue in Saskatchewan?
The broad focus of my research is to study the biology of emerging viruses causing serious human diseases. The ultimate aim is to translate that knowledge into better disease management strategies and therapeutical options. My main research focus now is on a recently emerged polio-like illness in children called Acute Flaccid Myelitis (AFM). Currently, vaccines or drugs are not available to manage this disease and vast majority of the children contracting AFM suffer from prolonged paralysis of limbs, severely affecting their life quality. As AFM cases are steadily increasing across North America including in Canada over the last decade, there is an urgent need to develop strategies to prevent AFM and treat affected patients. Our research addresses the mechanism behind the development of AFM and how a previously benign virus evolved into a serious human pathogen.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
There are a lot of unknowns about the biology of emerging viral pathogens and how they cause disease. The opportunity to work on some of those challenging questions and occasionally being able to solve a few pieces of that puzzle is a greatly rewarding experience. We expect the knowledge created in our laboratory to eventually help in development of new vaccines and therapeutics, bringing help to patients suffering from diseases like AFM. I also enjoy working with my students and seeing them transition to trained virologists capable of taking up future challenges in infectious disease research.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
As our laboratory works with many emerging viral pathogens which were identified recently or not studied much in the past, very little is known about their biology. Learning to work safely with these viruses, developing the necessary research tools and experimental systems and establishing collaborations with clinicians and other researchers in a timely manner is a challenging and involved process. Moreover, as viruses often evolve over time acquiring novel traits, keeping the research into their biology and mitigation strategies up to date is also an ongoing process.
How did you first become interested in this area of research? What inspires you to do the work that you do?
During my post-doctoral studies, I worked on Zika virus, which causes severe neurological defects in newborn babies. While searching literature for similar illness, I came across reports of a recently emerged polio-like disease in children in United States. The pathogen causing this disease was unknown at that time. A virus named enterovirus-D68 (EV-D68) was later identified as the causative agent of AFM. An intriguing aspect about EV-D68 is that the virus was known from early 1960s and was previously associated with only mild flu-like disease in children. Its ability to cause AFM is now attributed to recently acquired genetic changes caused by virus evolution. The symptoms in children suffering from AFM is eerily similar to polio, which was a huge public health problem before effective vaccines nearly eradicated it from most countries. Though EV-D68 is not as prevalent as polio was until mid-20th century, evolution of highly transmissible variants of EV-D68 could happen rapidly, as with our experience with SARS Coronavirus 2. By understanding how a handful of genetic mutations turned a relatively harmless virus into a dangerous pathogen, we hope to identify novel therapies to prevent the development of AFM.
Where is your research headed in the next five years?
On one hand, we will try to get a better understanding of the virus biology, by looking into how recent genetic changes enabled EV-D68 to infect the nervous system leading to AFM and by identifying the cellular receptors exploited by the virus to gain entry into nerve cells. These studies will also help us estimate whether there is an imminent risk of viruses closely related to EV-D68 evolving into pathogens capable of AFM-like illness in near future. On the other hand, we plan to develop and test new vaccine candidates against this virus in collaboration with vaccinologists at VIDO-InterVac and explore repurposing existing drugs to prevent EV-D68 infection and the development of AFM.
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