The emergence of new viruses is accelerating as the human population gets more concentrated in cities and pushes into natural habitats. It can be difficult to know which of today’s innocuous viruses may turn deadly down the road.
“Whatever virus you’re afraid of today, several more will emerge in a few years,” says Paul Ahlquist, Morgridge Institute director of virology and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator. “Recent experience suggests that they will all be different, and they will all be surprises. Whatever you want to protect against now is only the beginning.”
Infectious diseases have large-scale human impact, and virology research works to tackle current issues while building knowledge to prepare for future threats and to provide more broad spectrum controls.
John and Jeanne Rowe have provided long-term support for Ahlquist’s research group, which studies viruses like HIV, human papillomavirus and Chikungunya.
“I think Paul Ahlquist is an immensely thoughtful, careful, creative person, and he’s working on viruses in a number of important health areas,” says John Rowe, a member of the Morgridge Institute Board of Trustees.
The Rowes have broad interests and are generous supporters of the humanities and educational causes. Their commitment to virology research allows scientists to tackle challenges in basic science and human health that deserve serious attention.
“In the Rowes’ support we see person-oriented, service-oriented goals joined with valuable scientific motivations,” Ahlquist says. “Their commitment challenges us to take a much broader view of what we’re doing and to explain to ourselves first and then to others, why do we really care about our projects and how can we best target them?”
“I think viruses are a major source of human health concern,” says Rowe. “While we’re better able to cope in some ways now than a hundred years ago, we’re also more interconnected and more vulnerable.”
In basic biomedical research, there’s an element of serendipity that you can’t escape. It’s difficult to predict which research will pay off, in what way and when.
Ahlquist gives the example of retrovirus research and the later emergence of HIV. Regardless of associated Nobel-winning basic science breakthroughs by UW’s Howard Temin and others, he says he can imagine some people criticizing early retrovirus research as a waste of money and resources spent “on a group of chicken viruses that didn’t cause any human disease.”
But when HIV emerged and was found to be a retrovirus, scientists had a crucial foundation of knowledge to look toward.
“When HIV arrived, it wasn’t long before researchers could say ‘we know what this is,’” Ahlquist says. “Understanding this basic nature tremendously accelerated progress with HIV and AIDS.”
Virology is of crucial importance for controlling some of the greatest human health burdens and has also proven to be one of the best ways to learn basic biology, Ahlquist says. But resources for biomedical research are increasingly challenging to acquire and can make it difficult to develop new directions.
“This commitment from the Rowes and its expression in our discussions with them have been very useful in giving us new energy, fresh perspectives,” Ahlquist says. “It’s not only stimulating at the top of the organization, but throughout our group and to the growing number of individual researchers that they’re supporting.”