To locate any scientist at the Texas Medical Center, Houston, you must successfully navigate your way through a web of hospitals, research centres, medical and nursing schools, parking garages, health spas, morgues and McDonald’s franchises. As with most things Texan, the Medical Center is supersized and on any given day, about 60,000 employees move about within the complex, making it one of the largest science institutions in the world.
Dr B.V. Venkataram Prasad’s lab is deep in the heart of the Center, at the Baylor College of Medicine. Amidst the scattered stacks of research papers on his desk is an off-white, rocky mass. It looks a bit like brain coral but without the pores. It is in fact a product of years of Prasad’s research in biochemistry and molecular biology, a reproduction of a protein from the universally-dreaded rotavirus.
Prasad—who has an MSc in Physics from IIT Bombay and a PhD in crystallography from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore—and his team have been trying to understand how to arrest the reproduction of the rotavirus inside host cells. "It reproduces until it ruptures the cell and then it goes to another cell and does it again," he says. Part of the challenge is learning how the rotavirus gains access into host cells. In a time-honoured scientific tradition, he falls back on the metaphor of sports to explain the process: "It’s like you go to a soccer game and you present your ticket to the guard, who lets you in. But if you present a ticket for a cricket game, he won’t let you in." However, the wily rotavirus manages to present a very effective counterfeit of a ticket and sneak his way in. This is the first point at which Prasad’s lab is trying to stop the rotavirus.
The structural information the Prasad lab is compiling on the rotavirus is the same kind used for drugs against HIV, flu and the common cold. But the rotavirus is exceedingly resilient and when one firm brought out a vaccine, it was found to cause problems in the small intestine. The problem, Prasad feels, is corporate impatience but thinks diarrhoea can be defeated in five years.
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