Most students probably can’t imagine spending most of their summer getting to know the life cycle of the herpes simplex virus (HSV) intimately. But most students aren’t Gwen Barnes, an aspiring microbiologist from Blacksburg High School.

Barnes spent the majority of her summer at the Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech as part of the Biocomplexity Research Experience for High Schoolers (BREHS). While in the program, she has been helping Andrea Bertke, assistant professor of infectious diseases in the Department of Population Health Sciences at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, with building a model for herpes that will help pinpoint the exact pathway the virus uses to reactivate.

HSV affects more than 250 million people in the US alone, according to Bertke. Once it infects the host, it will remain in the body lifelong, going dormant until stress or other triggers (even something as seemingly mild as a sunburn) cause it to reactivate. Upon reactivation, the virus can cause recurrent fever blisters or genital herpes throughout a person’s life. At its worst, the disease can cause blindness or encephalitis in adults, or brain damage to babies if infected as they’re being born.

“Our goal with this project is to figure out how these different stimuli cause the virus to reactivate,” said Bertke. “If we can do that, we can design new antiviral drugs to target those processes to prevent the virus from ever reactivating, which would mean no recurrent disease and no spreading to other people.”

At the institute, Barnes is helping to expand and fine-tune the cell signaling model in CellDesigner, a program developed by Stefan Hoops. By reading research papers and adding her findings into the model, Barnes helps build a more comprehensive model of the signaling pathways responsible for HSV latency and reactivation.

“This experience has really helped me understand cell signaling much better,” Barnes said. “I’ve also really learned how to do research and understand scientific papers.” Both of these skills will be vital to Barnes’ future career as a microbiologist.

Once Barnes finishes entering all her data into the model, Stefan Hoops at the Biocomplexity Institute will create a dynamic model, manipulating the various points in the signaling pathways to pinpoint the precise locations in the pathway that will prevent reactivation. By combining a dynamic cell signaling model with laboratory testing on the virus, Bertke and Hoops hope to determine if there is a single point in the reactivation pathway of herpes that can be altered to prevent the virus from reactivating. Barnes will continue to be a part of this exciting project, which has the potential to have a tremendous impact on a substantial public health problem.

“This is not something Gwen would have been able to experience through high school work,” said Bertke. “Data analytics and modeling are extremely important techniques for understanding health and disease processes and Gwen's ability to do this now gives her a chance to do ‘real’ data analytics that she can apply later on, if she chooses to go into this rapidly growing field. This opportunity gives high school students a chance to see what it's like to work in this particular field to see if this might be something she will want to pursue for a career.”

Published by Tiffany Trent, September 06, 2018