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Rachel Roper, PhD, Associate Professor of Microbiology & Immunology at East Carolina’s Brody School of Medicine has been granted a patent for her discovery of a poxvirus gene that, when deleted, significantly weakens the vaccine virus while simultaneously increasing immune responses to it.

In 2008, Dr. Roper and Emmanuel E. Zervos, MD, Professor of Surgery at ECU, received a University Cancer Research Fund Innovation Award to help develop a pancreatic cancer vaccine based on a virus with this gene, called the A35R poxvirus gene, deleted. Both Roper and Zervos are also members of UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.

How are poxvirus genes related to cancer vaccines? The answer lies in how vaccines are developed. The poxviruses have been commonly used to develop vaccines in humans, but a key limitation has been what is called a “virulence gene”. Viruses, having co-evolved with humans over millennia, are uniquely adapted to exploiting vulnerabilities in our immune systems. These genes, of which A35R is one, suppress the immune system to allow the virus to proliferate in the human host.

The discovery may allow researchers to get around a key roadblock in cancer vaccine development, the tendency of these viruses to suppress the immune system when the opposite effect is desired.

Roper also believes that the A35R gene or a protein it produces may be used in cases where suppressing an undesirable immune response might help prevent issues like organ rejection after transplantation or autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis and lupus.