Dr. Victor Hsia of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore School of Pharmacy and Health Professions

The University of Maryland Eastern Shore received a sizeable grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of the Herpes Simplex Virus on brain neurons.

UMES’s funding, which is spread across a four-year period, came from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ (NIAID) Support for Research Excellence (SuRE) grant. The NIAID’s mission is to conduct and support research to understand, treat, and prevent infectious, immunologic, and allergic diseases, according to its website.

“This NIAID funding is one of the most difficult institutes to get a grant from because it’s very competitive,” said Dr. Victor Hsia, of the School of Pharmacy and Health Professions, “So, I was very surprised that the reviewers appreciated the proposal and decided to fund the work.”

The SuRE program supports research capacity building at eligible higher education institutions through funding investigator-initiated research in the biomedical, clinical, behavioral, and social sciences that falls in the NIH mission areas.

“HSV is one of the most prevalent viruses that infect humans,” said Hsia, whose interest in HSV-1 research began as an undergraduate student nearly 35 years ago. “Usually, it has an acute infection through the mouth, nose, and eyes and will later establish that latent infection in the brain through the trigeminal nerve.”

Hsia said that while the virus remains dormant in most people, increased stress will cause the virus to manifest itself, often in milder forms.

“The typical manifestation is a cold sore, but sometimes it can be severe, like herpetic keratitis or encephalitis, and sometimes, it can be lethal,” he said. “People are puzzled about how a virus so strong and so robust can establish this kind of dormant infection in neurons for life.”

Key to the funding was work done by former PhD student Dr. Qiaojuan Zhang.  His research found that latent neurons have “extremely high excitability comparing to the normal neurons”, which surprised the virologists. The research was performed in collaboration with Dr. Miguel Martin and the discovery was published in the Journal of Virology.

In addition to gaining a greater understanding of the effects of HSV-1 on the brain, Hsia also wants to dispel common misconceptions surrounding the virus and how it spreads.

“People believe that HSV-1 can only infect people with a lower socioeconomic status or who don’t take care of themselves, and that’s not true,” he said. “The virus can affect anybody. People can get this infection at home, in school, or in movie theaters. This funding allows for an opportunity for research and for education to the community as well.”

The application process for the funding was stringent, requiring Hsia and his team to create a hypothesis, design an experiment, show preliminary data, and then write a grant proposal. Once completed, the proposal was then submitted to the NIH through UMES’s Research Office for evaluation.

In order to receive the NIAID grant, the application score needed to fall within a range between 10 and 19, which is considered exceptional. UMES received a score of 18.

“The reviewers look at the significance of it scientifically, then look at the investigators, environment, innovation, and research strategy and approach,” Hsia said. “Our move from Somerset Hall to the Pharmacy Building helped strengthen our research infrastructure and environment, which they called ‘state of the art’.”

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