Learning from viruses to boost protection

Meet Dr Vinod Sundaramoorthy. For him, viruses can be considered as friends or foes. His job – to understand which is which and how viruses invade and damage a nervous system and learn from their viral mechanisms. 

Since 2016, Dr Sundaramoorthy has specialised in a cross-disciplinary research area of neurobiology and virology. Prior to that he was studying a neurodegenerative disease known as Motor Neuron Disease (MND). 

Currently, Dr Sundaramoorthy is in a research position, a collaboration between Deakin University and CSIRO, based out of the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness (ACDP) in Geelong. 

‘Viruses are like parasites whose primary aim is to enter a suitable living cell to replicate and spread,’ Dr Sundaramoorthy says.  

‘Some viruses like rabies, herpesvirus, Nipah virus and Japanese encephalitis virus have evolved the ability to infect the nervous system of the host, which can cause irreversible neurological damage.   

‘I specialise in studying these neurotropic viruses by developing advanced neuronal cell model systems from a neurological perspective.  

‘For one part, I investigate viruses as our foe, studying how some viruses invade and damage the nervous system in humans and animals.  

‘To achieve a successful infection of the nervous system, viruses have evolutionary gained abilities to hijack and take control of the biology and functioning of neuronal cells to favour its own infection and replication.  

‘For the other part of my research, I investigate viruses as our potential friend, where I aim to learn from these viral mechanisms to better understand the basic biology and functioning of human brain and the broader nervous system.’  

In 2021, he started an ARC Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) fellowship that has allowed him to enter a research leadership position and grow his research team and its capabilities. 

‘My ongoing research focus is to identify new clues through innovative approaches to protect the nervous system from diseases, ageing and viral infections,’ he says.  

‘Recently, my immediate focus pivoted to the respond to recent outbreak of Japanese Encephalitis virus (JEV) in Australia.  

‘Using our stem cell-derived human neuronal model systems, I am aiming to the test the pathology of JEV on human brain in collaboration with CSIRO-ACDP.’ 

Neuronal galaxy

What has driven you to research in this area?  

I have always been fascinated by the magical complexity of our brain. I remember hearing as a boy from my biology teacher, how many tiny special cells in our brain function together by some sort of signals which control everything that we do and think within a fraction of a second. This stayed with me and since then one day I wanted to be involved in understanding the science behind the action in the brain. 

What makes you passionate about this area? 

I am passionate and grateful to be in this research position where in a collaboration between Deakin University and CSIRO, I can work in the high-containment virology research facility (Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, ACDP) in Geelong. This facility is one of the very few specialised and dedicated virology research facilities in the world. This allows me to safely handle and study lethal viruses. This presents me with unique opportunities to understand how viruses infect, influence, and damage the nervous system and identify clues to develop strategies to protect the nervous system.  

What is your current focus? 

My current focus is on rabies virus. We have recently identified that rabies virus has innate abilities to stop specific degenerative process in neurons. This is because the rabies virus needs healthy neurons to replicate in the nervous system at least in the initial stages of infection. We are investigating the mechanism and molecules involved in this ability and we are hoping to adapt and apply this virus-inspired strategy to develop new therapeutics for neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia.  

What does an average work week look like?  

My average work week varies depending on the time of the year. Currently, I am mostly in the lab. Most of my research work is done in the high containment laboratories of CSIRO-ACDP facility in Geelong. Here I work with a team of CSIRO scientists, research support staff and two postdocs that I co-supervise. I am also looking forward to welcoming two Deakin students (Masters and a PhD) who will start to work with us in July. My typical lab day involves a lot of microscopic imaging. I like to see what viruses do in neurons using advanced confocal microscopes at CSIRO-ACDP facility. 

How did COVID-19 impact your research?  

COVID-19 has presented many challenges as well as some opportunities in my line of research. Evidence from patient clinical data all over the world, suggested that COVID-19 infection could cause acute and chronic neurological symptoms either by direct invasion of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into brain tissue or by indirect immunological damage. We have studied the effects of a direct infection of SARS-CoV-2 in stem cell-derived human neurons. We also studied whether the SARS-CoV-2 can spread between interconnected neurons using our novel microfluidic derived model system. We are in the process of publishing these results. While this new opportunity has added to our research capability, COVID-19 lockdowns for the most of 2020 and 2021 have caused significant delays in our other research projects. 

SARS-CoV-2 in Vero

 Tell us about some of your career highlights. 

My significant career highlight is achieving the competitive Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Research Award (ARC DECRA) 2021. This research fellowship is awarded to study fundamental neurobiological mechanisms using rabies virus. Another highlight was being awarded the CSIRO-AAHL Excellence in Science Award 2019 for my research on rabies virus. I am also grateful to be able to make a small contribution to the COVID-19 vaccine development research at CSIRO-ACDP in 2020 for which I was co-awarded a CSIRO Chairman’s medal for Science Excellence. 

This piece is a real-world impact article that was recently published in our Annual Report. Interested? Read the full report here