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Finding a Cure for Chikungunya

The virus, Chikungunya, which means "that which bends up," has a cure coming for it after student Madison Gray's research and findings.

Nature is constantly recycling itself, adapting and changing to meet new climates and landscapes. The same is true of viruses.

Outside of the US, viruses most people have never heard of perpetuate in under-developed countries. One such virus is called Chikungunya, which, in an African dialect, means “that which bends up”—describing the contorted postures individuals develop over time from the mosquito-borne infection.

For Madison Gray (‘22), a recent biochemistry graduate, the fact that Chikungunya has no treatment is a source of exhilaration. Gray applied for and received two College Undergraduate Research Awards (CURAs), funding for mentored student research. The first grant was awarded for designing a computer program to sequence RNA, and the second CURA, awarded for the 2021-2022 school year, was used for the actual treatment of Chikungunya.

A white woman with long brown hair in a black long-sleeved shirt smiles at the camera with a blurred background.
Photo by Madison Gray

“My main goal is to have a lab where we create treatments and then present them in other countries and try to help them find ways to make it for themselves,” Gray says.

Gray knows firsthand what it’s like to be diagnosed with a disease that has no known treatment. Serving as a missionary in the Philippines for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gray contracted dengue, or as the locals call it, “the bone crusher disease.” With no medicine to treat her symptoms, Gray was at the mercy of drinking enough water in an effort to flush the virus out. The pain was so great, the only time she moved was to use the restroom—which she says felt like her spine was “going to collapse in on itself.”

After finishing her mission, Gray returned to BYU and, after exploring both biology and chemistry, finally settled on biochemistry with an emphasis on virology. At a lecture she met microbiology professor Brett Pickett, who was studying the Chikungunya virus. Gray joined his lab, spent several weeks pouring over the case, and developed a simple computer program that categorized FDA-approved drugs based on their ability to fight the Chikungunya disease.

To accomplish this, Gray took human cells infected with the virus and ran them through a supercomputer to sequence the RNA and DNA. Once sequenced, Gray could compare the infected and noninfected cells. Using the supercomputer’s algorithm, Gray was able to compile a list of medications that could counteract the virus and test what would theoretically happen to the cell if the drug was used.

A white woman in a white lab coat and black gloves holds a dropper over a test tube above a white desk with various plastic and metal scientific instruments across it.
Photo by Madison Gray

The program was built using other scientists’ published data “to make the computer an expert on Chikungunya virus and the various ways it can change fibroblast cells,” explains Gray. After the program ranked the drugs by which ones counteract the symptoms of the virus best, Gray scaled them according to toxicity and safety with the assistance of toxicology professor, Gene Ahlborn.

The two narrowed down the drugs to the best three options. “The best form of medications are usually cocktails, or mixtures between drugs, because the virus can just mutate and overcome it,” Gray explains. “So, we try to [attack the virus] multiple ways.”

Gray spent every day in the lab using a Fluorescence Microscope to find evidence that the drug combination is an effective treatment for Chikungunya. One hundred thirty-six potential drugs were tested, and with a little more fine-tuning, Gray narrowed down seven drugs that would make good candidates for a Chikungunya treatment.

More steps need to be taken before a specific drug can be labeled a viable treatment, but the end is near. Gray presented her research in Wisconsin this past summer, and is now earning her PhD in infectious diseases.