By Maria M. Lameiras
If Wile E. Coyote were a microbiologist, then his Road Runner would be the flu virus—a bug that just keeps bouncing back.
Jessica Belser 08PhD, who works in the Influenza Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), studies types of influenza viruses, their potential capacity to cause disease, and how these viruses pass from person to person.
“I’ve always been interested in viruses that could kill you, and influenza is right up there,” says Belser. Her interest in the study of deadly diseases came after reading The Hot Zone, a nonfiction account of lethal viruses and their spread. “I thought it was the most interesting work you could do.”
Belser recently received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on science and engineering professionals in the early stages of their independent research careers. She is one of 102 researchers honored for pursuit of innovative research at the frontiers of science and technology and commitment to community service.
After graduating from Rutgers University in her native New Jersey, Belser applied to Emory’s Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis program primarily for the opportunity to do her dissertation research at the CDC—an examination of the pathogenicity and transmissibility of H7 influenza viruses. She has continued that work at the CDC, studying H7 viruses from all over the world, including the Netherlands, China, Canada, Mexico, and Chile.
“When there is an outbreak, health organizations will send the virus to us. We take them and grow them up in eggs, then we will test the virus to see how well it replicates in human cells,” she says. “Based on what we find, we can determine which viruses are more of a threat to humans and what it is in the virus that is conferring those properties.”
Researchers use such information to identify which viruses are the best targets for new vaccines. Once a vaccine is developed, Belser and fellow researchers test the effectiveness of the vaccines against the original virus. They also test the efficacy of potential antiviral drug candidates.
Belser’s research into H7 viruses received worldwide attention in 2013 when an outbreak of H7N9 avian flu occurred in China, with 144 cases and forty-six deaths. As of February, 205 cases have been reported in 2014, with twenty-six deaths.
“We don’t know what virus is going to cause the next big outbreak. Our research identifies these viruses’ pandemic potential to try to figure out which subtype could cause the next outbreak or human pandemic,” Belser says. “It’s very unpredictable, but that is the challenge. It is the benefits of the research that motivates me.”
Belser is the second Emory graduate to win the prize. In 2012, Valerie Horsley 03PhD earned the prize for her research at Yale University on the cellular and molecular mechanisms that control tissue development, homeostasis, and regeneration.