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‘We are very much unprepared against yet unknown RNA viruses’

Martijn van Hemert is one of the principal investigators at the Leiden University Medical Center Department of Medical Microbiology and will be speaking at the NCOH Annual Scientific Meeting on 30 May 2018 on the subject of inhibition of chikungunya virus replication. Beforehand we asked him three questions.

What question are you trying to answer with your research?

We aim to understand at the molecular level how pathogenic RNA viruses replicate and interact with the host cell, with the ultimate goal of inhibiting their replication. At the moment the research within my group is mainly focussed on Zika and chikungunya virus, two viruses that are transmitted by mosquitos and that have affected the lives of millions of people around the world over the past decade.

Why is this important?

Many emerging infections and large outbreaks of infectious diseases are caused by (re)emerging RNA viruses that can cause serious disease in humans and livestock. Increasing globalization, changes in human behaviour and climate change will likely only increase problems with the (re)emergence and further spread of viral diseases. At the same time we are very much unprepared against these viruses, as effective antiviral therapy or registered vaccines to treat or prevent infections are still not available for many RNA viruses.

What do you ultimately want to achieve?

The molecules and antiviral strategies that we discover and study in the lab should ultimately lead to the development of antiviral therapy to prevent or cure infections that currently are a large burden to societies and the quality of life of individual patients. For example people suffering from the persistent joint pains caused by chikungunya virus infection. Broad-spectrum antivirals should prepare us for outbreaks of new and yet unknown viruses that will undoubtedly emerge in the future.