Paul Ahlquist

Creating a new game to undermine viruses

Paul Ahlquist

Paul Ahlquist

Director, Virology Research Group


We’re trying to understand big-picture questions about how viruses work.

Viruses have a remarkable capacity to appropriate a cell’s own functions, much like guerilla warfare, that keeps the virus thriving and changing in the body and transmitting to other people.

On the academic side, this knowledge will improve our understanding of evolution and biology. On the practical side, it will help us develop better ways – vaccines and medicines – to prevent or disrupt the ability of viruses to hijack healthy cells.

Our research includes viruses that can lead to cancer. Liver cancer is caused by hepatitis B or hepatitis C virus, and human papilloma virus causes essentially all cervical cancers in women. The beauty is that if you control the virus, through vaccines or antiviral drugs, you’re going to eliminate these cancers.

This is an exciting time in virology. As sequencing technology gets more sensitive and powerful, it’s become possible to sequence very small amounts of material. This has led to an explosion of new virus sequences that are greatly expanding our understanding of what’s out there.

When you apply an over-the-counter antibiotic cream to your child’s scraped knee, it works without having to know exactly what bacteria you’re fighting. We don’t have anything like that for viruses; our vaccines and drugs are virus-specific. We need a new game. We’re proposing to come up with antiviral agents that instead have much broader effects against whole classes of viruses.

To do this, we are working to identify the genes in people that viruses exploit to carry out their infection and replication. We want to figure out how to modulate them in ways that deny the virus what it needs. When we find a gene that many viruses use, we should be able to develop a drug that inhibits a broad spectrum of viruses.

Fearless Science

Science moves. It unlocks mysteries in medicine and opens new doors in human health. But science doesn’t thrive by asking safe questions. It moves when we push fearlessly into new frontiers. This Spring 2018 report explores science with the promise to move our lives.

Learn more