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Interview with Bryce Chackerian

By Vidhya Pathy, Associate Editor

Graphic by Helena Kim

Vidhya Pathy: How specifically have you dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic through your job?

Bryce Chackerian: So, my lab is interested in trying to develop vaccines. We work on a lot of different vaccine targets and when this coronavirus emerged, beginning in January, it wasn’t really on my radar that my particular technology could be applied. But, as the pandemic grew and grew and our university shut down partially, I started thinking about what types of things my lab could be doing to develop vaccines for coronavirus. One of my colleagues was actually able to get the virus and grow it, which was important because you need to be able to test whether the immune responses that your vaccine is inducing are able to block infection by the virus.

My lab makes vaccines a little bit differently from many of the other strategies you hear about in the news right now. I am actually quite optimistic that many of the vaccines that are being developed will work, but our strategy could also potentially play a role. Two people in my lab are collaborating with other people here at UNM to make that vaccine.

A lot of successful vaccines are based on just using the virus or a protein from the virus. You either kill the virus or weaken the virus and the immune system sees it and responds to it, but what you are vaccinating the person with is non-infectious. When you actually do see the virus, the immune system is primed with antibodies and other cells that can respond rapidly. [My lab] does something a little different.

We try to target tiny pieces of the virus, so, for example with coronavirus, you have probably seen these spikes that stick out on the surface of the virus particle. The spike protein is the viral protein that allows the virus to infect cells. So the idea is that if you could make antibody responses against that spike protein, those antibodies could then attach to the virus and prevent it from infecting the cell. If you zoom in on certain parts of the spike protein, there are some parts that are absolutely essential for making the interaction with the receptor on your cells. We took little pieces of the spike protein and displayed them on the surface of another vaccine platform, a virus-like particle. We make the empty shells of viruses and use a virus that normally infects bacteria. This particular virus-like particle induces really strong immune responses against itself and anything we stick on its surface. The idea is that if we vaccinate with those particles, then the immune system will see a piece of the coronavirus and illicit really strong immune reactions against it.

VP: What long term effects of COVID-19 (if any) do you foresee?

BC: I think eventually we will have a vaccine for this virus. There has been a huge anti-vaxxer movement in the United States. Part of the reason that people who are philosophically against vaccines are able to be convincing to other people is that vaccines have been so successful. We really haven’t had to worry about many infectious diseases since vaccines started to become more and more common for things that caused a lot of suffering in the past. When we do have a successful vaccine, it is a good reminder of how successful vaccines have been over the past 100 years at providing protection from diseases that are really really dangerous like measles and polio. When a large percentage of the population is vaccinated and people who don’t get vaccinated are protected by herd immunity, it is really easy to opt out of vaccines. Having this reminder that vaccinations are really really important could be a potentially good thing that comes out of this pandemic.

VP: How has the pandemic affected your lifestyle?

BC: From a professional point of view, it has been very very tough. I have quite a few students who were working in my laboratory, and our university didn’t shut down for research, but students weren’t allowed to come in mid May to early June. Their research projects were put on hold. It slowed down a lot of what we were working on.

And more than that, you know, I have kids. My daughter just graduated from college, and she came home from spring break and never went back to school. My son is in high school, and of course they didn’t have school after mid March. We haven’t gone anywhere. It’s the same experience that a lot of people are having right now. You miss interacting with people and I miss going to meetings. There’s this overwhelming feeling that life is on hold.

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