August 1, 2014  

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Southern Miss Researchers Working Toward Vaccine for West Nile Virus

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Dr. Fengwei Bai, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Miss, is leading a research team to study the mechanics of West Nile virus as it relates to animals and working hard to develop a proven treatment for the virus. (Photo by Danny Rawls)

As temperatures rise throughout the long, hot days of summer in South Mississippi, so too does the presence of mosquitoes. And with that pesky insect comes the threat of West Nile Virus.

The mosquito-transmitted disease has been on the upswing nationwide over the past several years. It is estimated that the virus has killed more than 1,500 people and infected more than 50,000 Americans in the last 15 years.

Researchers at The University of Southern Mississippi have joined forces with physicians at Methodist Rehab Center and University Medical Center in Jackson on a project that unites lab-conducted research with health care providers who work with patients on a daily basis. Through the newly formed West Nile Virus Research Network, researchers and health care professional strive to better understand the link between certain mosquitoes and the deadly virus.

The connection between the mosquito and West Nile virus is widely documented and cases of the virus have been reported in every U.S. state. But researchers still aren’t exactly sure how the virus causes brain and spinal cord infections in humans and animals.

Dr. Fengwei Bai, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Southern Miss, is leading a research team to study the mechanics of West Nile virus as it relates to animals and working hard to develop a proven treatment for the virus. The ultimate objective is to develop a successful vaccine.

“My goal is to work on the animal model here at the lab at USM and have the animal research facility, so we handle real viruses for research,” said Bai.

Bai is widely known as one of the nation’s leading West Nile virus researchers. His expertise in the field helped lead to the formation of the West Nile Virus Research Network – the first of its kind in the U.S.

Graduate student Amber Paul has spent years studying these conditions from both labs and class settings, but found it fascinating to meet people who have been infected with the virus.

“I was able to meet patients in November of last year who had been infected with West Nile Virus, and it was eye-opening to see the types of implications that come with the disease,” said Paul. “It sort of makes you appreciate the bench work when you can interact with patients who suffer from these types of problems.” 

The research network is designed as a three year project, but participants hope their partnership will continue in the future, as they are closer than ever to developing a vaccine.

“People have been working on it for a long time,” said Paul “It’s not to say we’re better than anyone else, but we are trying very hard to push our research to the next level.” 

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