Putting the brakes on ‘budding’ viruses: New measles, Nipah research offers a window into viral assembly

Paramyxoviruses have the potential to trigger a devastating pandemic. This family of viruses includes measles, Nipah virus, mumps, Newcastle disease and canine distemper.

“The infectiousness of measles is unmatched by any known virus. If one person with measles coughs in a room with 100 unvaccinated people, around 90 would become infected,” says Michael Norris, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral associate at La Jolla Institute for Immunology (LJI) and current assistant professor at the University of Toronto. “Nipah virus is not as contagious, but it is incredibly lethal, with between 40 percent and 90 percent of infections causing death.”

“Just imagine if a paramyxovirus emerged that was as contagious as measles and as deadly as Nipah,” Norris adds.

It’s not hard to picture that scenario. In fact, the 2011 film Contagion was based on this exact kind of imagined paramyxovirus.

Now Norris and an international team of collaborators have published the first-ever look at a key stage in the life cycles of measles and Nipah viruses. Their new study, published as an upcoming cover story in Science Advances, reveals how future therapies might stop these viruses in their tracks.

“This work solves a long-standing mystery: how viruses assemble themselves,” says LJI Professor Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., who served as study co-senior author with Professor Robert Stahelin, Ph.D., of Purdue University. “We know that a virus’s many pieces come together at the cell membrane, but we didn’t know what the trigger was that starts that irreversible assembly process.”

“This study succeeds by identifying how paramyxoviruses are able to utilize a host cell lipid for viral spread,” says Stahelin. “This work will inform future drug discovery endeavors.”

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