My main research interest is around viral infections that occur during pregnancy and get passed on to the unborn baby sometimes causing serious disease. These are known as “congenital infections”. Before we developed the MMR vaccine the most serious congenital infection was caused by rubella virus which is sometimes known as the German Measles virus. If a pregnant woman caught rubella during the first 3 months of her pregnancy her baby had a very high chance of being stillborn, or if it survived having permanent problems affecting their heart, their sight and their hearing. Where MMR is given routinely congenital rubella is almost eliminated. But there is another virus that few people have heard about that also causes serious problems during pregnancy. This virus, called cytomegalovirus, is the main one that my research group is interested in. Cytomegalovirus is a herpes virus, in the same virus family as the virus that causes cold sores. But cytomegalovirus, or CMV for short, is different because usually it doesn’t cause any illness at all. The exceptions to this are in people whose immune system doesn’t work very well who can develop serious infections in their lungs, liver and brain and it can also cause disease in unborn babies.
CMV is actually a very common infection, probably about 6 out of every 10 people listening to this will have caught the infection at some time in their lives without knowing it, and because it is a herpes virus it stays in your body forever, but it doesn’t usually do you any harm at all.
However, if a pregnant woman catches the virus, or if she already had it then there is around a 1% chance it will move through her placenta to reach the foetus in her womb. So in fact about 1 in 100 babies born in this country are infected with CMV. But again most of them have no symptoms and it doesn’t cause them any problems. Unfortunately 10% of infected babies, so around 1 in 1000 babies born in this country do have symptoms as a result of being infected and most common problems are damage to the brain, the eyes and especially to the ear so that most babies with this infection suffer some hearing loss.
My research is focused on trying to understand why some babies are fine when they catch this infection and some are seriously affected. You are probably familiar with the basic structure of a virus because there has been so much information in the media about SARS-CoV-2. And CMV is quite similar, it has a roughly spherical shape with it’s genetic code in the middle and a lipid envelope around the outside. Sticking out of the envelope are proteins, known as glycoproteins. For SARS-CoV-2 the important glycoprotein is the S or Spike protein, which as we have seen can mutate or change shape. For CMV there are lots of different glycoproteins sticking out of the envelope, but there are 6 types that are most common named by letters; glycoproteins B,M,N,H,L and O. We are doing some research to see whether mutations in one or more of these glycoproteins can make the virus more deadly and allow it to get into the unborn baby’s brain more easily to cause damage.
If we can identify a “high risk” type of virus we could set up a screening programme that would allow us to identify which new born babies were affected and give them some treatment to prevent or limit the damage to their brains, eyes and ears.
Like every other virologist in the world, most of my time during the last year has been taken up with SARS-CoV-2 and the pandemic. We have been developing tests to see what antiviral products are effective against the virus, things like particular coatings for surfaces, PPE etc. I am very happy to answer questions on my own research, or in relation to COVID.
I’m Pam Vallely and I am a Professor of Medical Virology at the University of Manchester. I did my first degree in Applied Biology in Liverpool where I discovered that I loved viruses, so I went to the University of Sheffield to do my PhD in virology. At that time it was just becoming understood that some viruses could cause cancer and my research focused on papillomaviruses and how they could cause cervical cancer. Next, I moved to Manchester and worked as a Clinical Scientist in the NHS for a few years. I was particularly involved with the haemophilia centre at Manchester Royal Infirmary where many of the patients had become infected during the 1980’s with HIV as a result of using blood products imported from the USA that were contaminated with the virus. This led me to take up a post in the University as a lecturer in virology and ultimately as a Professor. In addition to my research I am very interested in postgraduate education as a way to improve the training of scientists and clinicians in biomedical areas.
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