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Vanquishing viruses

ASU Biodesign researcher Brenda Hogue peeks inside pathogens to formulate solutions for COVID-19


Brenda Hogue.

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April 28, 2020

“I learned early in my life that anything I set my mind to, I could do,” said Brenda Hogue, professor and researcher at Arizona State University. “It always requires work and there may be a few challenges, but in the end, you’ll be glad you stuck with what drives you.”

Hogue’s resolute focus has her front-and-center in one of the world’s most perplexing and dangerous crises: how to stop the spread of COVID-19, the frightening illness caused by the new coronavirus.

This resolve has kept her working for nearly 40 years to find answers that will help solve the mysteries of coronaviruses. Today, Hogue is considered one of the world’s experts in understanding the structure and behavior of coronavirus proteins.

“Once we understand how the viral proteins are structured, we can understand how they interact with human cells — and how they cause inflammation and disease,” she said.

Now, Hogue and her team of colleagues, students, graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are focused on creating a vaccine that will blunt the spread of SARS-CoV-2, today’s most insidious threat to the health of everyone on our planet.

They are working around the clock with a team of scientists that includes virologists, microbiologists, immunologists, epidemiologists and bioinformatics experts. The Hogue support team also includes her son, School of Life Sciences Assistant Professor Ian Hogue, a virologist who studies herpes viruses, and her husband, Henry “Harlan” Hogue, a retired expert in neutron physics and infrared detector technology.

Aiming high with Biodesign’s diverse ‘family’ of researchers

Brenda Hogue is a virologist at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, working as part of a large multidisciplinary team at its Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy — researchers who are keenly focused on designing and using vaccines and therapeutics to combat infectious disease.

Epidemics and pandemics have significantly affected and shaped humanity throughout the course of history. During the past two decades, three new highly pathogenic human coronaviruses have spilled over from animal hosts to infect humans. The current COVID-19 global pandemic has altered and taken the lives of people all over the world.

“I hope when my young grandchildren are adults, they will not have to contend with what we are experiencing with COVID-19,” she said, “that the global infrastructure, knowledge and countermeasures will be in place to deal with and avoid such outbreaks.”

Donors are making a difference

Donors from throughout the Sun Devil constellation have been chipping in to help make Hogue’s vision a reality. One donor — an ASU staffer — said, “The worst feeling right now is feeling helpless against this scourge. Knowing that my small contribution will make a big difference locally — and perhaps, eventually, even globally — helps me feel confident that we are in this fight together.” A 5-to-1 match from a former employer boosted her contribution.

With modest donations, the Hogue lab could purchase tissue culture reagents for cell and virus growth, diagnostic kits, RNA extraction kits, synthesis of cDNA clones, sequencing and antibodies. Higher-level donations would allow them to purchase incubators, freezers and the high-tech microscopes they need to get a clearer picture of the cells involved with the novel coronavirus.

Farm life propelled Hogue into a life of looking for answers

Hogue’s life today in a research lab in Arizona is far removed from her childhood on a farm in central Mississippi. That’s where her attraction to biology began. She loved being outdoors and was mesmerized by watching things grow. Her mother, a stay-at-home mom, and her father, a vocational agriculture teacher, raised their three daughters with a sense of no holds barred. The sisters still own their beloved land.

When Hogue began to focus her curiosity on coronaviruses in the early 1980s, only two human coronaviruses had been identified. Today, we are on human coronavirus No. 7. From then until now, Hogue has played an increasingly important role in helping researchers and physicians across the world understand how to deal with two earlier coronavirus infestations: severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

Without an understanding of how disease happens, there can be no vaccines or antiviral medications.

And Hogue believes that ASU is just the place to find the answers.

ASU’s scope and spirit expands the possibilities

“ASU is very large — but its size and scope are what make just about anything possible,” she said. “We have many investigators knowledgeable in so many different disciplines. We have the technology and infrastructure we need at hand, and we have the drive and determination.” Hogue recalls the day that Biodesign Institute founding director Charles Arntzen described the developing concept of an institute that was in its early stage of being established.

“Biodesign was just a concept then,” she said, “but I could see that big things were going to happen. I feel fortunate to have been part of what Biodesign was to become. Today, it’s evident to me that we can accomplish important things.”

Seeing inside the virus is leading to answers

Hogue calls on tools from a wide array of disciplines — biology, genetics, physics, chemistry and math — to understand how viruses work.

Once Hogue can see inside the coronavirus protein, she can manipulate the virus to determine if she can stop the malicious behavior that causes disease, and even death.

The big questions remain: Can we identify all the proteins involved in a coronavirus infection? Why are some coronaviruses more deleterious than others?

Hogue’s lab has shown the changes coronaviruses undergo when they enter cells. Their discoveries are important to the work that is happening to create vaccines and antiviral medicines today. With an increasing understanding of how these proteins work, scientists will be prepared to create medicines in the future that can combat new coronaviruses more quickly.

Hogue’s life clearly reflects her outlook.

“If you are really passionate, you can accomplish good things,” she said. “Embrace what you want to do. I found my niche when I began studying viruses.”

Written by Dianne Price

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