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Norovirus hit the Mercia and Wales Regional Day, hosted by Worcestershire LA, on April 5th.  

No, no one was taken ill!  The guest speaker was Lucy Thorne, MBiochem, MRes, PhD, winner of the 2012 BFWG Centenary Scholarship, and she was talking on the subject ‘Secrets to the success of the winter vomiting bug, and are there any good viruses out there?’

Lucy ThorneLucy studied a four year undergraduate degree in Biochemistry with a masters year attached at Wadham College, Oxford, specialising in her masters year in virology and immunology.  She then obtained a place on the Welcome Trust PhD Program at Imperial College London, and completed a Masters of Research before beginning her PhD research on Norovirus.  Last year she moved with her supervisor to the University of Cambridge to complete her PhD and take up a post-doctoral research associate position continuing to study Norovirus.

The meeting was held in restored barns at Lower Smite Farm, now the headquarters of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust.  Speaking to a packed audience, Lucy outlined the known history of the virus, from its first confirmed outbreak in 1972 in Norwalk Ohio, (which gave the virus its name) to current understanding of its characteristics and how research is developing into its containment, treatment and possible cure.  

Symptoms in humans (strains can affect domestic pets, pigs, even lions) include raised temperature, headache, aching muscles, diarrhoea and vomiting.  The virus is very infectious, spreads very efficiently, replicates very quickly, mutates and is very resilient.  There are currently no licensed anti-virals or vaccines to treat it.  It commonly spreads rapidly through schools, cruise liners and hospitals, causing heavy costs in closures and staff absences.  The illness develops very quickly and the patient, although weakened, usually recovers in a matter of days.  It is more serious and protracted for young children and the immunosuppressed, where it can cause dehydration and malnutrition.

Research has been hampered because the human virus cannot be grown in the lab, although labs in the US have started working with human volunteers!  Current findings show that 20% of the population is naturally resistant to the original strain of the virus, leaving 80% susceptible, and a person’s blood group appears to be significant, people with blood group O being more susceptible, although newer strains are able to infect the majority of people.

Current, exciting research on the Norovirus lifecycle and the essential components of the cell which the virus needs for survival indicates that it may be possible to target and block those essential components of the cell itself with drugs, which would mean that the virus would not develop a resistance to the treatment.  This has been, and continues to be, the area of Lucy’s research.

The second part of the talk challenged our fear of viruses and allowed us to consider how they could be put to good use:  one virus that exists in our bodies helps the placenta to fuse to the uterus during pregnancy, and other species also rely on a virus for this fundamental process;  a study had shown that the herpes virus, which remains dormant in the patient, can protect from the plague because of how it reacts with the immune system;  other studies have recorded how viruses such as flu or measles, and vaccines against small pox and chicken pox have benefitted several cancer patients.  Researchers are now hoping to engineer safer versions of such viruses to use just in the tumour cells and kill them.

Lucy’s talk was so full and so interesting that it is impossible to do it justice in this short article.  However, it is hoped it can convey some of  her enthusiasm and tremendous expertise!

After several questions which served only to demonstrate the interest Lucy had generated in these topics, the group adjourned for lunch – everyone having first washed their hands thoroughly with soap and hot water!      

Angela Poppleton, April 2014