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Rutgers professor's research works to prevent spread of viruses by targeting their genetic makeup

<p>Laura Fabris, a researcher in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is conducting research that could lead to new methods of combatting viruses. Her team is primarily studying the mechanisms that viruses use to mutate.</p>

Laura Fabris, a researcher in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is conducting research that could lead to new methods of combatting viruses. Her team is primarily studying the mechanisms that viruses use to mutate.

A Rutgers professor is conducting research on the influenza virus and has recently been experimenting with alternative ways to track viruses and prevent their spread.

Laura Fabris, an associate professor and researcher in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, is leading a team of undergraduate and postdoctoral students to study how viruses mutate. Her proposal for combatting viruses involves targeting their genetic makeup.

“They (the suggested particles) are completely synthetic and are made of the same RNA (Ribonucleic acid) that viruses are made of, but they are deprived of parts that would allow them to create their own proteins, their own shells,” Fabris said.

These therapeutic interfering particles, which have predominantly been used for HIV, would operate similarly to a vaccine by stripping away the protein of the virus that allows it to replicate. This would eventually cause the virus to starve and die, Fabris said.

Fabris’s research team is focused primarily on the quickly-mutating nature of viruses. Even with a possible breakthrough in viral confrontations, mysteries still exist in the virus’ constantly-altering structure, which is why influenza vaccines have to be redistributed every year.

She said there is a methodology in mind that could potentially track the virus’s development.

“(I would) provide some imaging tags that would allow us to quantify where and by how much the virus has mutated so we can monitor, on several conditions, how the virus mutates. We’re using virology, computational, viral ecology theory and imaging tools,” she said.

This research is being funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA grants money to universities across the nation to conduct research in fields such as military use, technology and biology. 

Typically DARPA has specific projects it wishes to pursue, so Fabris said that getting her idea approved was difficult, but ultimately successful.

The project has allowed Fabris to continue her passion for biological and health sciences while making an impact in the community, she said.

“For me, I’m committed to bringing students to make a difference. Sometimes, they’re not exposed to things that they would be good at ... and maybe that one step (I give) will give a step up in knowledge that will be picked up by someone else,” she said.

Fabris said she believes it is imperative for students to see the career opportunities that are available beyond classic industry jobs. Having experimented with different paths from a young age, she said she hopes her project offers students a new perspective.

The students who have similar visions as Fabris hail from a variety of science backgrounds including chemical engineers, electrical engineers and physicists. 

There is an importance in having a diverse team, for each individual has a particular skill set that is unique, she said.

Richard Lehman, professor and chair in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said he agreed that a well-rounded team was critical. 

Materials science is the foundation for all engineering, meaning it is necessary to have a group with individual strengths, Lehman said.

In regards to Fabris, Lehman said she offers a passion and expertise to some of the more conventional materials science subjects.

“She brings a very exciting mix of materials background. Her education is in chemistry, she’s worked in materials, and she’s also had an interest in biology and biomaterials," Lehman said. "It’s been a very strong dynamic that supplements some of the traditional strengths of our department. She’s moving out into exactly where we expected her to go, (solving) broad-reaching problems facing humanity."

These wide-reaching problems can rarely be solved by one individual in one place, so she has made a large effort to disseminate her information throughout the science community, Fabris said.  Whichever method of communication — publishing an article, presenting at conferences, or posting something on LinkedIn — using tools is the only way to truly expand the vision.

“It used to be that professors and scientists would be stuck in their own lab, their own office, but it’s completely different," said Fabris. We always have to be reaching out, making people aware of what we do, because there’s so much information available."

Kelly Kim is a School of Engineering first-year student. She is a contributing writer for The Daily Targum.

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