Improving a virus’s cancer-killing potency


June 2, 2021

In recent years, an unusual new domain in cancer research has opened up. The idea is to use infectious pathogens to attack and kill cancerous cells. So-called oncolytic viruses, in particular, have shown great promise for targeting cancer cells while leaving normal, healthy cells intact.

In new research, Rahman Masmudur and his colleagues describe a method for improving the effectiveness of a powerful oncolytic virus known as myxoma virus.  ASU researcher Rahman Masmudur smiling in front of some cacti, wearing glasses and a button down shirt Rahman Masmudur is a researcher with the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at ASU. Download Full Image

A member of the pox family of viruses, myxoma virus has some highly unusual properties. It has long been recognized as lethal to European rabbits, producing an invariably fatal disease known as myxomatosis, while appearing harmless to other species, including humans. Remarkably, myxoma virus has more recently been shown to display an insatiable appetite for cancer cells, attacking and killing them. 

“We are trying to improve myxoma virus’s ability for infection, replication and killing different types of human cancer cells,” Masmudur said. “We are doing it by identifying and targeting the cellular proteins that restrict myxoma virus replication in human cancer cells.”

Masmudur is a researcher with the Biodesign Center for Immunotherapy, Vaccines and Virotherapy at ASU. The new study was spearheaded by co-corresponding author Grant McFadden, who directs the center and is a leading authority on the myxoma virus and its oncolytic potential.

The new research appears in the Journal of Virology, which has highlighted the new study in its Spotlight section, reserved for especially meritorious articles.

Antiviral granules (seen in red) sprayed into the cytoplasm by the protein DHX9. These granules act to inhibit the virus-fighting capacity of the myxoma virus, which is being explored as a therapy to treat cancer.

Scientists are hoping to design a range of new cancer therapies, based on oncolytic viruses such as myxoma. One challenge in advancing such research is the fact that certain cancers, known for their many-faceted efforts to resist effective therapy, can outwit myxoma virus by using an anti-viral cellular component called RNA helicase A/DHX9.

RNA helicases are members of a large family of proteins considered crucial for RNA metabolism and gene expression. RNA helicase A/DHX9 has been shown to reduce the effectiveness of myxoma virus against cancer cells. It does this by forming anti-viral granules in the cancer cell’s cytoplasm, inhibiting the myxoma virus’s ability to replicate.

The new research identifies the RNA helicase A/DHX9 protein as a potential target for new therapies that could neutralize its antiviral properties, thus improving the cancer-fighting potential of myxoma and other oncolytic viruses.

Richard Harth

Science writer, Biodesign Institute at ASU

480-727-0378

ASU Barrett, The Honors College student named 2021 Udall Scholar

Quadruple-major Nathaniel Ross plans to work in disability issues


June 3, 2021

Nathaniel Ross, an Arizona State University junior quadruple-majoring in biology, history, applied quantitative science and political science, plans to work at the nexus of climate policy, environmental justice and advocacy for the disabled community.

“My main goal is to focus my work on policy issues that impact the disability community, an often neglected demographic when it comes to climate policy,” said Ross, who’s also a student in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU. Photo of Nathaniel Ross Nathaniel Ross is an ASU junior quadruple-majoring in biology, history, applied quantitative science and political science. Download Full Image

“Disabled Americans are among the most vulnerable to death due to extreme weather events. Some specific policy goals I have are to increase the accessibility of governmental extreme weather protocols, increase public health access to people disabled by climate-related causes, and institute accessibility standards and inclusivity requirements for sustainability efforts. I do not know if I will focus my efforts on the local, state, or national level, but I know that these issues will not be fixed until people learn about the extent of the problem,” said Ross, who is from Mesa, Arizona.

Ross has been named a 2021 Udall Scholar by the Morris K. Udall and Stewart L. Udall Foundation. He is one of 55 students from 42 colleges and universities selected for the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship, which provides $7,000 for the scholar’s junior or senior year of study.

A 20-member independent review committee selected this year’s Udall Scholars on the basis of their commitment to careers in the environment, tribal public policy or Native health care; leadership potential; record of public service; and academic achievement. 

Ross was chosen in the environmental category. In addition to selecting Udall Scholars, the review committee also awarded 55 honorable mentions, including Dylan Bia, an ASU biological sciences major, who was recognized in the Native health care category.

“By being selected for this scholarship, I am now part of an extensive national network of scientists, activists, policymakers and other environmental experts. I hope to utilize these newfound connections to learn from Udall alumni and improve my advocacy abilities,” Ross said.

The 2021 Udall Scholars will connect Aug. 3–6 for the annual Udall Scholar orientation to meet one another and program alumni; learn more about the Udall legacy of public service; and interact with community leaders in environmental fields, tribal health care and governance.

Ross worked on his application for the Udall Undergraduate Scholarship with the Office of National Scholarships Advisement (ONSA), housed at Barrett, The Honors College on the ASU Tempe campus.

“The ASU nomination committee was thrilled to see this outcome, as the members felt that Nathaniel truly represented the ideals of the fellowship – integrity, civility, and consensus,” said Kyle Mox, associate dean of national scholarships advisement and ONSA director.

“His work is compelling because it transverses so many different areas, from sustainability to disability studies to public policy. His approach to solving ‘big problems’ is a concrete illustration of the ASU charter in action,” Mox added.

ASU News asked Ross for his thoughts on winning the Udall Scholarship. Here’s what he had to say:

Question: How do you feel about being chosen to receive the Udall Scholarship?

Answer: I am ecstatic about the outcome of this process. I am so grateful to receive the recognition from the Udall foundation considering the quantity and quality of the applicant pool. 

Q: You won in the environmental category. What do your environmental interests, research and activism consist of?

A: My main interest in the environment is in the intersection of climate and disability. Entering into the environmental space, I did not hear many people telling the stories of how environmental issues disproportionately impacted people with disabilities. I want to change that and help elevate the voices of a community that I am so deeply connected to. 

I have had the opportunity to engage with environmental work from very different viewpoints, including education, research, business and political advocacy.

At ASU, I am involved with two research labs, Dr. Susan Holechek's population genetics lab and the Luminosity Lab.

Through Luminosity, I was part of an international pitch competition at Schneider Electric with our idea of building an online trade platform for industrial waste product (IWP) reuse and recycling to help reduce the massive environmental damage IWP disposal causes. More than 2,000 teams applied globally, and we were selected as a top 30 team in North America. Additionally, I served as the vice president of network engagement for the student chapter of GreenLight Solutions, an organization that partners with local and international business partners and facilitates student-run sustainability projects. 

This past semester, I interned for Creosote Partners, a social justice-oriented legislative advocacy firm, at the Arizona State Legislature. This involved representing clients such as ChispaAZ, an organization that advocates for environmental justice. I was able to meet with lawmakers and advocates on how to make systemic change for the better within our government and policies. I loved the opportunity to be deeply involved in the policy-making process on so many issues. Additionally, I recently became involved with the Society for Public Health Education, working in a community of practice focused on expanding the understanding of the environment's impact on health. 

Q: Why did you apply for the Udall Scholarship?

A: I originally was not going to apply. I did not think I was competitive since I was a sophomore, and COVID-19 had interrupted so many of the opportunities that I hoped to be involved in. However, a mentor of mine reminded me how valuable going through an application process of this depth can be. The way the Udall application is set up, you have to really take a step back and reflect on what your goals and motivations are and what brought you to that point. I went into the application with the mindset that I gained something from the process, even if I didn't win. 

Q: What was the application process like? What did it entail? Was it competitive?

A: The process was twofold, consisting of a preliminary ASU application process and a secondary process with the Udall Foundation itself.

Each university is only permitted to nominate a certain number of students for the award each year. Prospective applicants first apply internally with the Office of National Scholarships Advising, which compiles a faculty review board that selects each year's nominees. After that, you work with the folks over at the ONSA office to help fine-tune your application.

The application itself can be very daunting. There is a demographic and activities section, seven shorter essays, and an 800-word essay where you analyze and respond to a significant written work by either of the Udall brothers. This can be challenging, but going through the process is really fulfilling since it helps you better understand your own motivations and feelings about how you want to make a difference.

Overall, the process is fairly competitive. This year 55 scholars were selected from 416 nominees across the United States.

Q: What advice would you give to other students who may be thinking about applying for the Udall Scholarship?

A: I would say that there is no single defined path to success for this scholarship. The only way to know if you are truly competitive is to take the chance and apply. Regardless of the outcome, going through the process can help you for other applications you have down the road or for your own personal self-reflection and growth. If you are an underclassman, definitely apply as a sophomore. Even if you are not selected your first time, you will be much better prepared to apply the following year.

Nicole Greason

Public relations and publicity manager , Barrett, The Honors College

480-965-8415