Kartik Chandran (PhD’01 Biochemistry) has spent years studying an organism that most of us hope never to experience: the Ebola virus. Last year the infectious agent not only spread within West Africa but also for the first time reached the United States. The ensuing panic prompted a number of national broadcast news media outlets to turn to Chandran for answers.
Ebola is a major focus of Chandran’s research as a professor of microbiology and immunology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. His contributions include helping to identify both the chemical pathway Ebola uses to invade host cells and a specific mechanism inside of cells that acts as an Ebola receptor.
What fascinates you about viruses?
So many things! They are just these incredible nanomachines, and are often so beautiful to look at. This is what got me into virology in the first place. My Ph.D. adviser at UW–Madison, Max Nibert, showed me some gorgeous image reconstructions of reovirus particles and I was hooked.
Viruses form such a crucial part of life on earth. Indeed, life as we know it wouldn’t exist without viruses. I’m fascinated by the perpetual war, ancient yet modern, that viruses and hosts wage against each other, and by how much that has shaped biology on this planet.
In light of the recent Ebola outbreaks, do you have any words of comfort or hope?
It has been horrifying to watch the Ebola epidemic take hold in West Africa. I am hopeful that the resources needed to control it are finally being brought to bear, with the U.S. leading the way. But it’s happening so slowly! We need to multiply our efforts by an order of magnitude and do it quickly— it still feels like the world is in denial about what is happening. I am optimistic also that we will be able to throw vaccines and therapeutics into the fight in the next few months.
But in the meantime, we need to find ways to short-circuit the delays involved in creating infrastructure like treatment centers and the challenge that staffing such centers entails. We have to do more to reduce the spread of the virus at the local level. This seems desperate, but I think we need to help people care for their own family members “in place” by providing the resources and information they need—personal protective gear, chlorine, food. And we have to do this in communities on a regular schedule, not just once by handing out a kit.
What else would you like to tell the public about Ebola?
We need a different approach to develop vaccines and therapeutics against emerging agents like Ebola that are not considered major public health threats (or were not, until a few months ago). This and other episodes illustrate the failure of our planet-spanning civilization to act with foresight and plan for the future. The model of letting the marketplace dictate which therapeutics get developed is clearly inadequate to this purpose, since it rewards only short-term thinking. Unfortunately, the government-driven model is not really optimal either—it takes too long to act and disburses funding too anemically.
I don’t pretend to know what the right models are, but I hope we will actively work on coming up with them in the coming months and years. Because this is definitely going to happen again—if not with Ebola, then with some other infectious agent.