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Superheroes of Science

Apr 27, 2020

David Sanders, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Purdue University, works on introducing genes, or nucleic acids (DNA and RNA), into cells with the hope of producing a therapeutic benefit to treat disease. Using the virus as a shell, David can manipulate different properties of a virus. One modification involves changing the proteins on the outside of the virus. The modified virus can then be used as a delivery vehicle for introducing genes into particular targeted cells. Different viruses target different types of cells: some viruses want to go into white blood cells, liver cells, brain cells, or cells in the respiratory tract. Gene therapies are probably best known for their use in treating genetic diseases such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis. However, gene therapy can also be used to treat cancer and, of current interest, to generate an immune response against coronaviruses. Viruses have perfected the technique of bringing nucleic acids into cells. Instead of having viruses transmit their own nucleic acids, David modifies them to transfer preferred genes. David refers to these as “mix and match viruses” because they take certain traits from different viruses to make an ideal combination for delivering gene therapy. One safety modification used in his lab is to fix the viruses so that they can’t reproduce themselves. David’s group has worked on a virus that acts like a retrovirus on the inside. Retroviruses go backward from RNA to DNA, meaning the gene a retrovirus delivers becomes permanently incorporated into the target cell. The protein on the outside of the virus that David’s group studies was replaced with a protein found on the outside of the Ebola virus. This allowed his group to target cells found in the lung airway epithelium where it would be ideal to target gene delivery in order to cure cystic fibrosis. 

Another interest of David’s involves the ethics surrounding the process of scientific publication and the peer review process. David comments on safeguards that can be used to help prevent bias within research science. It’s important for the scientists who first come up with an idea to be properly credited for their work.      

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