The World’s Fourth Largest Killer

By Danniel Arriaga

A cure for HIV: could we someday arrive at that day? In the meantime, I’ve seen the day where scientists are working hard to get the next best thing, a vaccine.

I spoke with Susanna Huggenberger (Suzie for short) an undergraduate majoring in biochemistry at the University of Nebraska and also part of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Internship Program held at Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Huggenberger is working under the mentorship of postdoctoral research associate Marisa Banasik working under professor Michael Cho in the biomedical science department, searching for a possible vaccine to HIV.

The GWC is a program that invites students who are 16 or older to come to Iowa State University and conduct research with distinguished professors, postdoc research associates, and graduate students. Students get a taste of life on campus and of what research is like for eight weeks during the summer.

So what’s the big deal with HIV? HIV stands for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and affects the immune system targeting T-cells. HIV can eventually turn into the fatal disease, AIDS. Anyone can be infected. Finding a cure or a vaccine for the life-changing disease can stop the fourth biggest killer in the world.

“HIV is a tough, nasty thing to target. It’s something that tends to very rapidly mutate in a person. So when you try, to make a vaccine against it, it just changes itself to the point that its not recognized by any of the defenses your body has,” said Banasik.

Their main focus is to find a way to “train” the body into resisting the virus and even identify the signs when it starts to mutate. Their major project is known as chimera virus project, named after the Greek myth. Chimera according to Greek mythology was a monstrous being that was composed of the parts of three animals.

They take samples from both an HIV pseudo-virus that is easily neutralized by vaccines and one that is not affected at all and combine the two together. They are working with a pseudo-virus because the virus can infect one cell and not be able to reproduce and spread to other cells. By “smashing” the two samples together, they can find how regions are affected by a sensitive virus and from a resistant virus. With this they can see what aspects of the vaccines are working or not working against the virus, in order to create a better vaccine.

So what does Huggenberger have to put on the table in stopping this fatal disease? The idea of discovery hooks Huggenberger. She loves the concept of learning new things about this world, and yearns to be part of the next big thing that could change the lives of thousands, maybe millions.

All this started back in high school where Huggenberger began her interest in science.

“In my mind, science is like the last frontier. Not everything is known about it. There’s a lot left to learn that could change a lot of lives. I feel that other fields, like economics and business, have already been figured out,” said Huggenberger.

When Huggenberger first started the GWC, she did not expect to work on a project that relates to an important, unresolved situation, like HIV. While being a part of the program she has learned several new lab techniques including using a QIAcube machine, which allows for DNA mini preps, or even RNA and protein isolation.

Because an HIV vaccine has yet to be made, there’s not exactly a plan to follow step by step. Huggenberger has a lot of trial and error to look forward to in her future.

The GWC has been bringing in students from all over the country and introducing them to new skills and exposing them to day-to-day laboratory research for the past decade.

Danniel Arriaga, a student at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, is spending the summer as part of the George Washington Carver Internship and is also part of the program, Science Bound. Danniel is an intern in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Communications Office, writing news stories about the other GWC interns.