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ECU Scientist Seeks End to Pox

By Jim Shamp, Senior Editor

Rachel Roper is in a race. And if she wins, her prize would be more valuable than any Olympic gold medal.

Last year Roper was among the first group of North Carolina scientists to receive the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s Biotechnology Research Grant. Her $72,497 award is one of several she’s collected from various sources to support her unique strategy for stopping the spread of monkeypox, a potentially deadly viral infection appearing around the earth like an all-too-real Grade-B movie monster.

It’s a race against time for Roper, who joined the faculty of the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University in 2004 as an assistant professor in the department of microbiology and immunology. By removing a specific gene that affects immunity, she’s attracting increasing scientific acclaim for her approach that holds promise not only for improving the safety and effectiveness of poxvirus vaccines, but also for killing other viruses such as coronaviruses, which include the human Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus.

A graduate of Texas A&M University, Roper earned her master's degree and doctorate in microbiology and immunology from the University of Rochester School of Medicine in Rochester, N.Y. She then completed postdoctoral training as an intramural research training award fellow in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Laboratory of Viral Disease. 

As Roper’s endeavor wends through the patent process, she continues her lab work, publication and grant writing in a passionate commitment to stem the ravages of pox in everyone’s houses.

“Ironically,” she said in a recent interview, “it’s the success of the global smallpox eradication program that opened the door to today’s spread of monkeypox.”

Smallpox is the first disease to be successfully eradicated worldwide, thanks to nearly 200 years of persistent vaccination use. The World Health Organization officially declared it defeated, and stopped its vaccination program, in 1980 – three years after the last case had been registered in Somalia.

Today only 600 known samples of the smallpox-producing variola virus remain – 400 of them locked away at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and 200 at Russia's State Research Centre for Virology and Biotechnology at Koltsovo in the Siberian region of Novosibirsk.

Smallpox killed up to 600,000 people a year in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century. Less than 30 years ago, it was endemic in 31 countries, striking10 to 15 million people a year, killing about two million of them and blinding and disfiguring millions of others.

But even though the smallpox vaccination program was hugely successful in wiping out that specific scourge, smallpox is identified by the U.S. government as a primary bioterrorism/biowarfare threat. And the halting of the vaccine program has left humans without the “side effect” of increased immunity to the monkeypox virus – a “cousin” of smallpox – for almost 30 years. Now, monkeypox is spreading. In Africa, it’s causing fatality rates frighteningly similar to those once associated with smallpox. The first outbreak of monkeypox hit the United States five years ago in people who played with infected pet prairie dogs.

“The emergence of SARS represents an even more significant viral evolutionary event,” said Roper. “It may well be the biggest infectious disease event since HIV.”

Before SARS, coronaviruses had received little research attention and caused no significant human disease. But Roper was one of the leading scientists who sequenced and analyzed the SARS genome and, in 2003, published in Science the startling finding that this virus belongs to a new, previously unrecognized, group of coronaviruses.

“Though the initial outbreak of SARS was controlled,” said Roper, “the continuing transfer of SARS from animals to humans in Asia suggests that it may only be a matter of time before another important mutation occurs, releasing a new virulent and transmissible 'SARS 2.’” Roper is the former program director for the British Columbia SARS Accelerated Vaccine Initiative and is senior author on an upcoming paper on SARS vaccines.

Using the mega-number-crunching computer technologies of bioinformatics, Roper and her colleagues have been looking for clues as to why some of these viruses are meaner than others. And they’re turning up some interesting ones.

Roper’s biggest hope is in a vaccinia virus that she’s crippled by removing a gene that surfaced above thousands of others as an ideal target. Called the A35R, the gene interested Roper because it seems to inhibit immune responses in mammals. So, with the help of the Biotechnology Center funding, she’s pursuing her hypothesis that removing the A35R gene from poxvirus vaccines will make vaccines safer and more effective against such threats as monkeypox.

And, if the unthinkable should happen, and bioterrorists somehow find a way to release smallpox, a safe, powerful, wide-ranging bug buster could just help save the world.