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Wade Gibson on Virus Assembly, and Doing What You Love

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Wade Gibson on Virus Assembly, and Doing What You Love

Interviewed by Sarah Head 

Wade Gibson on Virus Assembly, and Doing What You Love

Wade Gibson is a professor emeritus of pharmacology and molecular sciences. His lab studies a type of herpesvirus called cytomegalovirus.

What does your laboratory study?

GIBSON: We study a type of herpesvirus called cytomegalovirus. We’re interested in the proteins that these viruses get host cells to make, what their function is, and how they come together to make this rather elaborate infectious particle called the virion.

How many proteins does the virus code for?

GIBSON: It codes for more than 150, many of which are components of the virion, which forms the outer capsule of the virus. It’s very important that this structure goes together just right, because that’s what carries the DNA from one cell to another to continue the infection process. So the virus commits a large portion of its genetic material to making all these proteins, similar to all of the different parts that come together to make a car.

What are some of the clinical applications of your research?

GIBSON: The more we understand about the machinery of virus assembly, the better chance we have of finding ways to jam up those little machines so they can’t do their job and the virus dies. Since I began this work, my research has gone from trying to find out all we can about this big structure, to studying a couple of enzymes that are absolutely critical for the virus to exist. Now we’re thinking about ways to design new drugs targeting these enzymes. Vaccines have not yet been very effective for most types of herpesvirus.

That’s what attracted me to doing research at a medical institution. The tools we generate in the lab also have the potential to be used in a clinical setting. For example, I might make an antibody that helps me learn about how the virus replicates, but I can also take it over to the clinic and they can test whether it might be useful diagnostically.

How did you get interested in studying viruses?

GIBSON: I was always interested in living things. When I was a kid, I would turn over rocks, logs and hay bales and see if there was interesting stuff there. During college, I worked at a small biotech company on a project involving viruses and came to think that they were really fascinating. At that time, a new faculty member here at Johns Hopkins, Bernard Roizman, was writing interesting articles about herpes viruses that captured my imagination and curiosity in an almost enchanting way. After college, I decided I wanted to go work with Roizman, who had then moved from Hopkins to the University of Chicago, so I followed him there, and the rest is history.

Aside from research, what do you like best about being at Johns Hopkins?

GIBSON: For the type of research I do, I need a lot of help from people who do highly specialized things, like mass spectrometry, electron microscopy and protein structure work. So I needed someplace that was big and had a lot of powerful equipment, where I could get to the right people, get to the instruments and collaborate. That’s what I found at Hopkins. It’s even better now that the focus of the pharmacology department has shifted from being more about viruses and cell biology to being more about chemistry, because I don’t know chemistry, so I can take advantage of all the wonderful equipment and knowledge my colleagues have. My career’s been a luxury in some ways. I’ve been able to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t have any aspirations of becoming famous or rich or anything like that. I just wanted to pursue my research and enjoy my family and garden. After nearly 40 years at Hopkins, I’m satisfied that’s just the way it happened.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists?

GIBSON: Try to find something that makes you happy. Although these days you have to keep your eye on the fact that what you work on has to appeal to some funding institute, at the end of the day, young people need to find things from which they derive an inherent satisfaction. You have to be intellectually challenged by what you’re doing.