International Research Team Tackles Deadly Virus

By Michele McDonald

Kylene Kehn-Hall

Kylene Kehn-Hall

A George Mason University-led team of international researchers is looking for ways to treat a debilitating and often fatal encephalitis virus that hits horses and humans alike.

Currently there are no antiviral drugs for the deadly mosquito-borne Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. This virus causes swelling of the brain and can be used as a bio-weapon.

George Mason researcher Kylene Kehn-Hall and her team are working with scientists from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia on the three-year $1.5 million project funded by the U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“We’ll have some strong leading candidates for drug treatments by the end of the three years,” says Kehn-Hall, who is working on three encephalitis-related projects and based at Mason’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases.

The Venezuelan strain of the encephalitis virus is one of three similar viruses that include eastern and western versions that affect both coasts of the United States. About one-third of people who develop Eastern equine encephalitis die—an average of about six people contract Eastern equine encephalitis virus every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those who survive frequently suffer from lifelong neurological disorders.

Horses and other equines don’t fare nearly as well as humans­­––the virus has about a 90 percent fatality rate. A two-year Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus epidemic in 1969 resulted in the deaths of up to 50,000 horses from South America to the southern United States.

Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus capsid. LAGUNA DESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus capsid. LAGUNA DESIGN/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

Mason researchers are searching for drugs that can stop the virus from infiltrating the host cell. They see promise in a synthetic hormone known as mifepristone, which is the active ingredient in contraceptives commonly called “the morning-after pill.” The hormone prevents the viral capsid protein from taking over the host cell’s nucleus, which should stop the virus from damaging the brain of the human or horse.

David Jans, Kylie Wagstaff and Jonathan Baell are leading the Monash team in Australia to synthesize and screen the drug and its derivatives. Mason doctoral students Lindsey Lundberg and Chelsea Pinkham are also working on the project.

The Mason and Australian researchers met three years ago at a conference in Baltimore.

“It works well, despite the distance,” Kehn-Hall says. “They have the expertise that we need. We do Skype and conference calls.”

Kehn-Hall originally wanted to pursue forensics as a career. Then she worked in the lab of now-Mason professor Fatah Kashanchi, and his mentorship guided her to work on viruses. She’s now mentoring students in her lab.

“It takes a lot of time but it’s rewarding,” she says. “You’re also expanding the capability of your lab while seeing your students succeed.”

Kehn-Hall started her career as a HIV researcher earlier in but switched to lesser-known viruses such as Rift Valley Fever and the equine encephalitis viruses because she enjoys finding a fresh path.

“With these viruses, it’s like an open book,” she says. “There are a lot of blank pages you can write your stories on.”

Plus, her research can have a direct impact on outbreaks of these mosquito-borne viruses.

“It’s not just ‘an outbreak may happen’––it will happen,” Kehn-Hall says.