Aug. 8, 2011

Biology Professor Shares Cutting-Edge Work at National Meeting

Venigalla Rao

Venigalla Rao, chairman and professor of the Department of Biology, was a featured speaker at the 30th annual meeting of the American Society of Virology (ASV) in Minneapolis, where he provided an overview of landmark discoveries by him and his collaborators on the motor of a virus that is considerably stronger than any known molecular motors, including those responsible for muscle contraction.

This discovery, which he discussed in his July 18 plenary lecture titled "A Fast and Powerful DNA Packaging Machine from Bacteriophage T4," has laid the groundwork for his current cutting-edge research on using the motor for a variety of biomedical applications such as vaccines and gene therapy.

Rao, who is also director of Catholic University's Center for Advanced Training in Cell and Molecular Biology, is a leading expert on viruses and associated applications such as vaccine development.

He says he welcomed the invitation to be a plenary speaker at the ASV meeting held at the University of Minnesota. More than 1,300 scientists were in attendance.

"The study of viruses is a very broad field. Often, we tend to stay in our own smaller circles within the field - human, animal, plant, bacteria," said Rao. "The American Society of Virology brings together all scientists who study viruses of all organisms. I appreciated the opportunity to share the significant work we have been doing in the area of bacterial viruses with such a large and diverse audience."

He has been collaborating with Professor Michael Rossmann of Purdue University in Indiana, a well-known structural biologist and also a leading expert in the study of viruses.

Rao, who has been with CUA for 22 years, has expanded his research to develop novel multi-component vaccines. His virus motor work has been funded for many years by the National Science Foundation. In 2009, he received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to develop a single vaccine against both anthrax and pneumonic plague. And in late 2010, he was awarded $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design a new vaccine against the virus that causes AIDS.

His talk at the ASV conference was well received, he reports. "Some knew about this work, many did not. I heard from fellow scientists that they were excited to hear how far we have come with this research and how it might be applied to other disciplines within the virus umbrella," said Rao.