Fighting West Nile

UNC Professor Susan Keenan

Susan Keenan

While public health departments focus on prevention of the West Nile virus, a UNC assistant professor of biology is researching how to treat it and other mosquito-borne diseases once they start.

Susan Keenan has spent the last 10 years researching drug design for West Nile virus, malaria, yellow fever or dengue fever. All attack the body in different ways but lead to hospitalization and often death.

The goal of Keenan’s research is to find small molecules that inhibit the function of a protein or enzyme essential for the survival of the viruses or parasites. Those compounds can then be used as drugs to fight the illnesses. So far she’s discovered some compounds that keep the viruses from replicating.

A vaccine exists for yellow fever, but malaria is now resistant to all of the known drugs developed for it. There is no drug for West Nile virus, Keenan says.

West Nile virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999 and peaked in 2003. That year, Colorado had the highest number of cases in the country. Through prevention measures, the number of cases and deaths has gone down significantly.

In poor parts of the world, mosquito-borne illnesses are devastating. Nearly 2 million people die of malaria each year, most of them children younger than 5 years old. More than half of the world’s population lives in areas where malaria is a constant threat.

With well-known organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation putting money into fighting malaria, it’s a good time to be doing anti-malaria research, Keenan says.

“Once you find the compound to combat malaria, the infrastructure now exists to partner with others doing similar research,” she said.

Along with a research colleague at Colorado State University, Keenan recently received a $1.4 million grant from the Rocky Mountain Regional Center of Excellence, funded by the National Institutes of Health.

It costs about $15 million to bring a new drug to market, Keenan says. The challenge is making drugs for these illnesses affordable, since most people suffering from them live in poor parts of the world.

The research on such diseases won’t likely ever end, Keenan said.

“It’s not a matter of finding a new drug and then we’re done,” she said. “The parasites and viruses will always mutate and find a way around whatever drug is developed.”

- Anne Cumming Rice