Maginnis awarded NIH grant to examine virus fatal in people with weakened immune systems

More than half the human population is infected with a virus that resides undetected in the kidneys of healthy people.

But when a carrier of the human JC polyomavirus, or JCPyV, has a weakened immune system, the virus can migrate to the brain, where it becomes fatal.

The virus spreads through contaminated food or water and from person to person — as it settles in a person’s urinary tract and bone marrow and can be shed in urine. The virus stays in these sites for a lifetime, and many people never know they have it, says Melissa Maginnis, assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Maine.

In people with weak immune systems, the virus can travel to the brain and cause a serious infection called progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy (PML), which damages the outer coating of nerve cells, causing permanent disabilities and death.

Maginnis examines the biology of JCPyV seeking to identify ways to prevent the virus from causing PML in people with suppressed immune systems.

She has been awarded more than $435,000 through the National Institutes of Health Research Enhancement Award (AREA) program for the project, “Characterization of viral receptors and signaling networks in JC polyomavirus infection.”

AREA projects support meritorious research and provide research opportunities for students. Maginnis, a recipient of the 2018 UMaine Graduate Mentor of the Year Award, is dedicated to providing high-quality student training opportunities in biomedical research. The Maginnis Lab supports the efforts of undergraduate and graduate students examining how the virus invades host cells.

“This research will pave the way forward to better understand how viruses are able to sneak into cells and cause infection,” Maginnis says. “This NIH award represents hard work and contributions from my entire team, and we are very excited to continue moving this research forward.”

The team hopes its findings will improve the understanding of JCPyV and possible treatments for PML, and enhance the knowledge of how viruses invade cells, which can be applied more broadly to the study of other viruses.

It’s known that the virus infects glial cells in the brain, which produce the myelin sheath that covers nerve cells. When the virus invades and multiplies in these cells, it damages the protective covering, which impairs nerve transmission.

Currently, there’s no cure for PML, highlighting the critical nature of the research.

People with JCPyV who are immune-deficient are at more risk for developing PML because the virus is able to travel unhindered on a path to the central nervous system. People with HIV/AIDS are at risk for PML, as are people taking immunomodulatory drugs for immune-mediated diseases such as multiple sclerosis.  

Maginnis and her team recently published an article in the Journal of Virology that identifies specific components of the cellular pathway usurped by JCPyV to invade cells in the kidney and nervous system.

This study, led by Colleen Mayberry, a Ph.D. student in the Maginnis Lab and alum of UMaine’s undergraduate program in biochemistry, also was selected as a “Spotlight article” of significant interest in the journal.

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R15AI144686. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

Contact: Christel Peters, 207.581.3571