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Nearly half-million dollar NIH grant awarded to study widespread virus affecting infants

(ATHENS, Ohio — Jan. 6, 2015) The National Institutes of Health has awarded $445,500 to Bonita Biegalke, Ph.D., associate professor of virology with the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, to study a virus considered to be the main viral cause of mental retardation in infants.

Human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) is present in 80 percent of the population but is usually dormant in healthy individuals. However, HCMV can be deadly for patients with HIV, organ transplant recipients and those who have weakened immune systems. It can also be passed from a pregnant woman to her fetus, causing deafness and intellectual impairments in infants. Currently, there is no cure for HCMV. The Institute of Medicine, an independent agency of the National Academy of Science, has ranked the development of a HCMV vaccine as a high priority.

Biegalke and her team are closely examining a protein, UL34, which plays a key role in the replication of the virus. A better understanding of how to control and regulate the protein may help scientists build a more effective and safer arsenal of antiviral compounds, which could be used to treat HCMV infections, limiting the associated diseases and birth defects.

“We’re excited to have this opportunity to significantly advance research in the field,” said Biegalke, who has been researching HCMV since 1991. Biegalke’s lab identified UL34 as an essential player in HCMV about 10 years ago, putting her team at the forefront of HCMV research.

The three-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases will help Biegalke’s team learn more about the unique characteristics and conditions that make the virus go dormant or replicate and cause harm.

HCMV is related to a group of viruses that includes herpes simplex virus and the viruses that cause chickenpox and mononucleosis. It is spread through contact with body fluids or during pregnancy from a mother to her unborn infant and is the most common intrauterine viral infection in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HCMV causes more long-term problems and childhood deaths than Down syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and neural tube defects. It leads to hearing loss or developmental disabilities in about 20 percent of children born with the infection.

“At the Heritage College, we are tackling major public health problems in our classrooms and also in our laboratories. Researchers like Dr. Biegalke are helping improve health and quality of life for thousands of people,” said Heritage College Executive Dean Kenneth H. Johnson, D.O.

The Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is a leader in training dedicated primary care physicians who are prepared to address the most pervasive medical needs in the state and the nation. Approximately 50 percent of Heritage College alumni practice in primary care and nearly 60 percent practice in Ohio. CARE LEADS HERE.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016