Dr Michal Barski and Dr Uli Schwarz- Linek of the school of biology at the University of St Andrews, along with colleagues at the University of Glasgow, published a paper in the online journal eLife which discovered new information about the Rift Valley Fever virus which could assist in the search for a cure or a vaccine.

The one question this could raise for many is simple: what is the Rift Valley Fever virus?

Rift Valley Fever Phlebovirus (RVFV) is a virus which can be spread via mosquitoes and infected animals to humans and livestock. When infected, the host may suffer from haemorrhagic fever, and potentially death.

RVFV may follow the path of other viruses such as Dengue virus or West Nile virus and spread into temperate regions such as Europe or the United States due to the effects of global warming.

With the increased temperatures in these temperate regions, carrier mosquitoes may be able to migrate further from the equator and infect regions they would otherwise be unable to spread to. Currently the virus may only be found in central Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The virus has no vaccine and no treatments for application in humans. This means that, without the creation of either of those, an outbreak of the virus could become an epidemic and cause significant human suffering around the world.

This would be exacerbated through the greater intensity of global travel occurring in Europe and the United States — potentially allowing the disease to spread quickly all around the world.

RVFV was ranked in the top ten most dangerous pathogens most likely to cause wide epidemics in the near future by the World Health Organization, signaling that the virus merits attention.

“With this research we have opened up a new avenue for understanding Rift Valley fever virus and hopefully also for developing therapy targeted at this virus. The recent, sudden epidemics of Ebola virus and Zika virus have highlighted the need to understand dangerous tropical diseases which could quickly spread to far away places. Rift Valley fever is on that very short list of viruses which might cause large epidemics next,” said Dr Barksi.

The research team conducted their study of RVFV using NMR spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography which allowed them to gain a greater understanding of the atomic three-dimensional structure of NSs. NSs is key to the RVFV virus as it assembles into large fibres within infected cells.

Research into the structure of the protein has led to the understanding that only the central portion is necessary for the formation of the fibres.

“The structural insights we generated will help to unravel the complexity of Rift Valley fever. It will pave the way for research on Rift Valley Fever phlebovirus and many other related viruses that have the ability to infect animals and humans,” stated Dr Schwarz-Linek.

The findings of this research present an important milestone in understanding the NSs protein and how it assists RVFV in infecting both humans and livestock with disease. These findings may assist with the development of drugs and vaccines to treat the RVFV virus.

More detailed information may be found within the paper “Rift Valley fever phlebovirus NSs protein core domain structure suggests molecular basis for nuclear filaments” by Dr Barski, Brennan et al, published on 15 September 2017 by eLife. The paper may be found on the eLife website: elifesciences.org and searching for “Rift Valley fever virus.”

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