Yale discovery might help in fighting viruses

With the state and nation still in the throes of a brutal flu season, a Yale University researcher hopes a new discovery can, among other things, lead to more effective vaccines.

“We’re very interested in finding out whether that is the case,” said Anna Marie Pyle, one of the project leaders and a Yale professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, and chemistry.

The Yale team developed a set of synthetic molecules that could boost the strength of the virus-fighting protein RIG-I. The protein recognizes and responds to viral genetic material by latching onto it and hurling the body’s immune system into action.

Pyle said her team first set out to “solve the molecular structure of the protein.” Once they figured out how it worked, they designed synthetic molecules — which look like short cords with a knot at one end — that can bind to the RIG-I protein in a way that jumpstarts the immune response.

The new study, published online Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, marks the first time scientists have been able to specifically manipulate and examine the RIG-I biosensor in a living animal — in this case, mice. Though Pyle said more research is needed, the discovery could facilitate improvements in everything from antiviral medications to flu vaccines and cancer-fighting drugs.

The idea of using it to produce better flu vaccine is tempting, as the state and nation are facing one of the worst flu epidemics in years. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that this season’s flu vaccine was, on average, 36 percent effective at preventing flu infections.

“We’re very interested in building a better flu vaccine,” Pyle said.

She said the team would continue to look into how effective this discovery could be at fighting disease. Right now, Pyle said, the possibilities seem vast.

“It could be able to boost the immune system prior to exposure to an unknown virus for which we don’t have a vaccine,” she said.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute and awards from the National Institutes of Health supported the research.