Dr. Michela Mazzon (University College London)

Dr. Michela Mazzon

University College London

MRC Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology

Dr. Michela Mazzon is a Researcher in the Medical Research Council Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at the University College London.

Throughout her time working as a researcher at several universities both in Italy and the UK, Dr. Mazzon has worked on a large variety of DNA and RNA viruses and on several aspects of cell-pathogen interaction, including innate immunity, virus trafficking, and cell metabolism, with the final goal of applying this knowledge towards the development of novel anti-viral approaches.

In addition, to address the growing need for virology service providers both from industry and academia, in 2017, Dr. Mazzon founded Virology Research Services. Based at UCL, Virology Research Services combines state-of-the-art, high-throughput facilities with the knowledge and know-how of experienced virologists,offering expert support to scientists developing vaccines and antiviral agents.

Ahead of her presentation at ISNTD d³ 2018, the annual conference by the ISNTD on drug discovery and diagnostics, we catch up with Dr. Mazzon in this Infectious Thoughts interview and find out more about her current research as well as the ongoing gaps and challenges in the race to find novel vaccines and antivirals to control emerging and re-emerging viruses.

A number of viral diseases, including those on the Neglected Tropical Diseases list, have the potential to threaten very large parts of the population and even escalate into deadly epidemics or pandemics, particularly in resource poor settings. How is your current research looking to tackle this?

Indeed, recent outbreaks have helped raise awareness of the threats viruses can pose to human and animal health, anywhere in the world. This has resulted in new funding and investments in the field, including incentives to accelerate the discovery of new vaccines and antiviral agents. However, the development of vaccines or therapies against new viruses is often based on what has worked in the past, but for many challenging viruses novel, pathogen-specific, and knowledge-based approaches will be needed.

Our research focuses on the development of modern, high-throughput, and knowledge-based assays and solutions. For instance, recent data from the dengue vaccination program has shown that in vitro antibody-mediated virus neutralization does not correlate with protection and this is due to dengue-specific phenomena, such as antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE), as well as differences in epitope accessibility between wild-type and lab-adapted strains.

Equally, ADE remains an ill-defined mechanism that cannot be accurately recapitulated by the current in vitro assays. This calls for the development of new tools, including cellular systems, constructs, and virus-like particles (VLPs) that can better mimic the scenario in vivo.

Additionally, in collaboration with our colleagues at University College London (UCL), we are using high-throughput and high-content phenotypic screenings towards the development of host-targeted broad-spectrum antivirals. Our work to date has focused on the concept that compounds targeting those conserved cellular pathways exploited by viruses can block infection by all of the viruses using those same pathways. We are now starting a phenotypic screen of a large small-molecule compound set to identify candidates to take forward in our drug discovery program.

Our approach combines an active research program with the provision of virology research services, something we believe is much needed in the field of infectious diseases. The ultimate goal is to help overcome the obstacles associated with virus research, especially for neglected tropical viruses.

What are some of the main challenges, both in the lab as well as further down the line in the field, that you are faced with or trying to avoid?

The main challenge is probably the viruses themselves! They are many, varied, constantly emerging or re-emerging with subtle changes, and many have out smartened all of our attempts at controlling them. It’s almost as if the scientific community is continually forced back to square one.

Add to this the need for rapid progression from the identification of a new virus to delivering a vaccine or antiviral to the affected population, maintaining interest and funding, and verifying and integrating the information collected across multiple labs and scientific disciplines.