Sanofi – Institut Pasteur 2015 Awards: Predicting Viral Mutation to Fight Infectious Epidemics


Marco Vignuzzi has a calm and collected demeanor that belies both the complexity of his field of study and the passion he has for it.


And lest there is any doubt, his work is anything but simple: Dr. Vignuzzi is a virologist specialized in developing computational and experimental approaches to monitoring and predicting RNA virus mutations. His team’s ultimate goal is to design better vaccines and antivirals.


As a laureate of the Sanofi – Institut Pasteur 2015 National Junior Award in tropical and neglected diseases, Dr. Vignuzzi is without a doubt driven by passion for science.



Unravelling Chinkungunya


His team has focused on the viral evolution of the Chikungunya virus. RNA viruses like Chikungunya are considered some of the simplest organisms on earth. While viruses can have their genetic code contained in DNA, those that contain RNA mutate at a much higher rate, with short generation times. This allows them to quickly adapt to changes in their host environment. Moreover, they are unstable.


However, despite their simple makeup, they cause the majority of existing and emerging infectious diseases, from Ebola, influenza and measles to SARS, hepatitis C, dengue, West Nile or Chikungunya.


Global warming induced climate change is a factor in the spread of infectious diseases like Chikungunya. Warmer temperatures have clearly facilitated the spread of viral vectors to temperate climes such as those found in Western Europe.


A case in point is the vector of Chikungunya and dengue, the tiger mosquito (Aedes albopictus), which is now present across large swathes of southern Europe. Indeed, the World Health Organization has pointed to outbreaks of infectious disease as an important issue to be taken into account at the COP21.


Zeroing in on viral mutations


Dr. Vignuzzi and his team were able to determine that the 2005/06 Chikungunya epidemic, which started in Réunion in the Indian Ocean and spread throughout India and Southeast Asia, was the result of one sole mutation. This enabled the virus to “jump” from the yellow fever mosquito (Aedes aegypti) to the tiger mosquito (they pinpointed the mutation to the saliva of the latter). Crucially, this meant the virus was now able to spread beyond tropical and subtropical regions to temperate zones.


The implications of all this hard work and dedication are significant: Dr. Vignuzzi’s team can now better predict the virus mutations with high epidemic potential in the near future.



And though they studied the Chikungunya virus, their research can be applied to any arbovirus (a virus transmitted by arthropod vectors), for example, dengue or yellow fever.


This will help target and control these viruses whether there’s an epidemic or not. Moreover, the research can also be used in the development of vaccines and antiviral drugs.


The achievements of Dr. Vignuzzi and his team exemplify Sanofi and Institut Pasteur’s commitment to developing comprehensive responses to public health issues worldwide. They are also a shining example of what dedication to research and development can do and how it can drive transformative medicine forward.


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