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Single Protein could Boost Body’s Ability to Fight Viral Infections

Update Date: Jun 12, 2014 12:04 PM EDT

Viral infections can be caused by a wide array of viruses that hijack the body's cells and used them to multiply within the body. These types of infections are difficult to treat because the viruses end up living inside the cells, rendering antibiotics ineffective. In a new study, researchers identified a naturally occurring protein that could boost the body's ability to detect and fight viral infections.

"Despite remarkable advances in vaccination and treatment, diseases caused by viral infections remain among the leading causes of death worldwide," said senior author Saumendra N. Sarkar, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI). "We need new defenses against viral infections, and our discovery is proving to be a promising avenue for further exploration."

The research team from UPCI and its partner, UPMC CancerCenter, examined a particular protein called oligoadenylate synthetases-like (OSAL). The researchers noted that in patients diagnosed with hepatitis C virus-caused liver cancer, the levels of the OSAL protein were elevated.

By conducting laboratory experiments, the researchers concluded that boosting the effects of the OSAL protein in human cells helped prevent viral replication. The OSAL protein was capable of enhancing the cell's ability to identify ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses. These types of viruses, which include hepatitis C and influenza, use RNA as their own genetic material during the process of replication. By improving the cell's ability to detect viral infections, the body's immune system reacted to the infection more effectively, preventing the virus from duplicating.

"The respiratory system is a much easier target to deliver this type of therapy, compared to an organ, such as the liver, so we'll be starting with infections like RSV," said Dr. Sarkar. "From there we could branch out to other RNA viruses and perhaps find effective ways to boost our inherent immunity against a broad range of viral infections."

The study was published in Immunity and supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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