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Helping Patients through Basic Research
CHORI Welcomes New Virologist Made Possible by the Jordan Family Endowment

CHORI is pleased to announce the March addition to our team of nationally and internationally renowned principal investigators of Laura Hertel, PhD, whose position is partially supported by The Jordan Family Endowment, seeking to expand cellular therapy research at Children's Hospital & Research Center Oakland.

An expert on the intersection between virology and innate immunology, Dr. Hertel focuses her research on human cytomegalovirus (CMV) and on how it interacts with the human immune system. After initial infection, usually occurring in childhood, CMV can remain within specific cells of the host bone marrow for life. As infections are normally asymptomatic, most infected individuals go on into adulthood without ever knowing they carry the infection.

"Most of the time, CMV is dormant, hiding out in the hematopoietic stem cells of the bone marrow and not producing any new virus."

"The majority of people who acquire CMV - about 80 to 90 percent of all adults - will never know it, and will lead completely happy and healthy lives" says Dr. Hertel. "The problem with CMV occurs in patients with severely compromised immune systems."

This means patients with AIDS, cancer patients taking immunosuppressant drugs, newborns, because their immune systems are not yet fully formed, and transplant recipients, whose immune systems have been wiped out in order to receive a transplanted organ.

"In these patients, CMV can be fatal," says Dr. Hertel. "CMV is able to infect a wide variety of different cells, and as a result infection can spread incredibly fast to affect all organs of the body."

The management of CMV infections is thus critical to ensure the success of the stem cell transplantations to cure blood diseases like thalassemia or leukemia that are the hallmark of Children's Blood and Marrow Transplant Program. Currently, patients take anti-viral drugs to keep CMV in check after transplantation, but these drugs are toxic and carry the risk of inducing the emergence of drug-resistant CMV. Dr. Hertel hopes to use her research as the basis from which to develop new drugs or even a vaccine that could keep CMV in check in these particularly vulnerable patients.
"There are two important aspects to CMV that we need to understand in order to develop these much needed treatments, the first of which is to understand how CMV is able to infect such a wide variety of cells."
"If we can identify the viral and cellular proteins that allow the virus to access so many different cell types, we could potentially develop anti-viral drugs that would block that function of the protein, thus preventing CMV from spreading to different organs," says Dr. Hertel. "In this way, we could give transplant patients more time to develop their new immune systems, while the spread of CMV within their bodies is kept in check by the drug."

The second aspect of CMV that is at the heart of Dr. Hertel's research is understanding how specific cells of the immune system, the dendritic cells, recognize and respond to infection.

"Dendritic cells are crucial for the development of immune responses against a variety of different pathogens, and are essential for the generation of effective vaccines" explains Dr. Hertel.
Just like other cell types, however, dendridic cells can also become infected by CMV, which, once inside, will efficiently paralyze their functions to escape immune detection.

"If we could identify the mechanisms the virus uses to infect these cells and suppress protective immune responses, we may be able to develop new anti-viral drugs or an effective anti-CMV vaccine," says Dr. Hertel.

Dr. Hertel is looking forward to spending her time at CHORI unraveling these mysteries and using that information to develop new drugs, vaccines or therapies to help transplant recipients and other vulnerable patients in need of better treatment options.

"I am absolutely thrilled to be at CHORI," says Dr. Hertel. "I was in paradise when I got my offer letter and I pretty much still am. And I'm incredibly grateful to the Jordan family and to CHORI for making my research here possible."

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011 8:49 AM

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