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MMBio Student's Virus Research Hits Close to Home

When MMBio graduate student Israel Guerrero learned about an outbreak of Chikungunya near his home in Southern Mexico, he went to work.

Israel Guerrero stands in lab for photo.
Photo by Lance Good

In 2015, Chikungunya, a virus that had only arrived in the Americas earlier in the decade, experienced an outbreak in southern Mexico. Over two-thousand miles away, Israel Guerrero heard the reports as he studied microbiology and molecular biology at BYU’s College of Life Sciences. Although he was in his second semester of a Ph.D. program, he felt a need to fly home and gain a greater understanding of what was happening and how it was impacting those who lived there.

“Science has to be translated into the real world,” Guerrero says.

The words of a dean from Guerrero’s undergraduate studies at the Instituto Tecnólogico y de Estudios Superiores Monterrey in Queretaro, Mexico, kept coming to his mind: “You are socially indebted.” He explains that his former dean would tell the students that receiving an education makes them indebted to society. “We can’t just look out for ourselves,” says Guerrero. “We have to use our privilege to provide and give back to our society.”

Driven by a desire to use his education to help his community, Guerrero traveled home and visited a hospital in the city of Acapulco where he met with patients and doctors. Though there had been few fatalities, the epidemic left the community incapacitated. He describes how crowded the hospital was and how overwhelmed the staff were as they coped with the outbreak. Hallways and extra rooms were filled with cots to accommodate the many patients. It was then that he told himself, “If I want to do this Ph.D. project, I better do it on something that can actually have an impact; and what better way to have an impact than to deal with something that is affecting my community.”

Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne virus, resulting in arthritis-like joint pain and fever. Patients are often misdiagnosed with Zika or Dengue virus infections, which have similar symptoms, leading to delays in treatment. While many who suffer from Chikungunya recover quickly, some experience pain for several months. Though rarely fatal, the virus can significantly impair physical activity and quality of life. In rare but serious cases, those admitted for Chikungunya later experience brain damage. For the people of southern Mexico and Central America, the outbreak has been devastating.

Working with Dr. Richard Robison, department chair in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Biology, in the Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) lab, Guerrero has been able to study the interactions between the virus and the human immune system. The lab is a full-containment unit, enabling students and faculty in the College of Life Sciences to safely research dangerous pathogens.

Guerrero working in lab
Photo by Lance Good

Through tests on a mouse model in the BSL-3 lab, Guerrero’s team has found a connection between the virus and the extreme cases resulting in brain damage that doctors have had trouble explaining. It is possible that Chikungunya may manifest more serious symptoms in patients with immune disorders and otherwise compromised immune systems. Now Guerrero hopes to identify just how the virus eludes the immune system and reaches the brain.

The team’s findings may help doctors more accurately diagnose the virus in patients, leading to more effective treatment. Guerrero is currently studying whether macrophages are a help or a hindrance in recovering from Chikungunya. He hopes their model can be used to test medical treatments.

Guerrero describes how working with faculty like Dr. Robison has made him a better scientist: “He has forced me to convince him.” Guerrero explains that he has learned to be critical of his own work so that he can make a better case for his proposed research and results. He also appreciates how much freedom he has to pursue research that interests him.

Guerrero says the lab attracts many bright undergraduate students: “They are really intuitive and have inquisitive minds.” He appreciates the opportunity to grow as a mentor, as well as to see the undergraduate students grow as researchers.

“It’s been a nice experience. And whenever I get disappointed or disillusioned—things never work out the way you plan—I go back and think of that experience [visiting the hospital in Acapulco] and say . . . 'if I can contribute just a little grain of salt to this cause, what better way to do it?'”