BU Today

Science & Tech

Virus Chaser

Creating new chemistry to fight disease

Part one of a three-part Ignition Award series

In the summer of 1999, a new illness appeared in the eastern United States. People complained of fever, headaches, and nausea that lasted for weeks. The disease was identified as West Nile virus, which is spread by mosquitoes. By 2005, nearly 3,000 infections were reported in almost every state.

There is no specific treatment for West Nile. And while a few people have died from its effects, the true threat of the disease does not come from the current strain of the virus but what the bug could become. That’s because West Nile is a flavivirus, a category of disease including dengue fever and encephalitis that potentially can mutate faster than the pace of drug and vaccine research.

“Flaviviruses are probably a prime area for emerging diseases that could be a pandemic,” explains John Snyder, a College of Arts and Sciences professor of chemistry. Snyder is collaborating with Eric Barklis, a virologist at the Oregon Health and Science University, to develop a synthesized organic compound that has shown promise in killing West Nile without harming healthy human cells.

The work earned Snyder an Ignition Award from BU’s Office of Technology Development (OTD). Four times a year, with the help of a committee of senior venture capitalists from the Boston area, OTD selects Ignition Award winners from applications submitted by BU professors or students whose research is ready to take the leap from the laboratory to the business world. Snyder’s work was one of three projects awarded a total of $100,000 at the end of last summer. Another round of Ignition Award winners will be announced this month, and the next application deadline is April 1.

“We believe these technologies have the potential to provide important benefits to society by translating into commercially available technologies, products, or treatments,” says Stanford Willie, executive director of OTD.

Snyder is working to increase the potency of his anti–West Nile compound. He believes that pharmaceutical researchers could one day use it as the basis for a new drug or diagnostic for the disease. At the same time, he will turn his attention to new chemistries. He is a faculty member of BU’s Center for Chemical Methodology and Library Development, which creates libraries of new chemical compounds for the center’s international biological collaborators to test against any number of diseases.

“Within the last 10 years, chemists have kind of thrown off the limitations of nature,” says Snyder. “The only limitation we have now with what we want to make is human imagination.” 

Chris Berdik can be reached at cberdik@bu.edu.