Erik Lontok wins undergraduate research award at Johns Hopkins
Erik Lontok, a Johns Hopkins University senior from Burbank, Calif., has conducted original research into infectious bronchitis virus (IBV), a disease that affects chickens and belongs to a broader class of viruses that the Centers for Disease Control recently identified as a leading suspect in a deadly new human disease, sudden acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
Lontok conducted his research with support from a Johns Hopkins Provost's Undergraduate Research Award. As one of 41 PURA winners this academic year, he will present the results of his research in an awards ceremony held at Johns Hopkins on April 1.
Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $2,500 to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, funded through donations from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research. Many Johns Hopkins undergraduates engage in some form of independent research during their four years, most alongside top researchers in their fields.
It's far too early to tell if Lontok's basic research will have an impact on clinical efforts to understand and treat SARS. Debate continues among health experts as to whether SARS is caused by a coronavirus, the class of virus that includes IBV and is responsible for about 20 percent of common colds in humans, or another type of virus altogether. Infectious bronchitis virus has unique genetic features that place it in its own class of coronaviruses, and these features could yield insights into the potential new coronavirus group to which the SARS agent may belong.
That's exciting to Lontok, who switched from pre- medical study to a focus on virology when he began to get a sense of how amazing and intriguing the basic workings of viruses can be.
"You get me talking about viruses, and my eyes get big," Lontok says with a mischievous grin. "My friends know I'm a real weirdo about it: I love viruses. I just find it amazing that these little parasites can mess with cells so well."
Lontok's PURA sponsor is Carolyn Machamer, an associate professor of cell biology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. During his sophomore year, Lontok went to work for Machamer, who studies IBV and the cellular organelle known as the Golgi apparatus.
For his PURA project, Lontok studied an IBV protein known as the Spike or S protein, probing how IBV creates and incorporates the protein into viral particles.
"Most viruses infect a cell, get the cell to make copies of itself and its proteins, and when they're ready to leave, they bud out of the outermost cell membrane," Lontok says. "Coronaviruses, though, bud into the Golgi apparatus. There's got to be a reason why they do that, some sort of advantage --viruses are simply elegant, and they don't mess around."
IBV makes an ideal model for study of these kinds of questions, Lontok noted, because it only infects chickens, making it easier for humans to safely study it.
Lontok was able to show that the S protein has an amino acid sequence at its end that allows cellular machinery to retrieve the virus from the Golgi apparatus and move it to the endoplasmic reticulum, another cellular organelle. The endoplasmic reticulum in turn tends to move proteins toward the Golgi apparatus. This special targeting sequence in the S protein therefore keeps it cycling in the cellular compartments where IBV assembles.
At this point it's just a theory, but Lontok wonders if the S protein might not be helping IBV select its assembly site. Lontok will receive his bachelor's degree in biology this spring, but plans to continue studying this and other theories about IBV while working toward a master's degree at Johns Hopkins.
Lontok, the son of Ricardo Lontok, graduated from Burbank High School in 1999.
The tenth annual PURA ceremony, where Lontok presents his research results on April 1, will be hosted by Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. The entire Johns Hopkins community is invited to the event.
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