Featured Researchers

Maxine Linial, virus researcher

Unraveling how animal viruses could affect human health

Dr. Maxine Linial’s groundbreaking research moves forward despite a challenging reality: In 2010, a serious accident left her blind.

One of the top researchers in her field, she may have lost her sight, but not her vision of unraveling complicated viruses and their health implications. For more than two decades, Linial has been a leader in the study of foamy viruses, a type of virus present in primates, cats, cows, horses and, more recently, humans.

Foamy viruses are not known to cause disease. But they’re important to study partly because of the story of HIV, which originated from a family of viruses, called retroviruses, that don’t cause disease in their natural hosts but had tragic consequences once they jumped to humans.

Although Linial and her colleagues have found key differences between foamy viruses and retroviruses like the one that led to HIV, there also may be parallels relevant to human health.

“By the time HIV was understood it was too late,” Linial said. “Here we have a chance to get ahead.”

This is basic science at its best, with Linial extricating secrets from things that most people wouldn’t even notice.

Her lab leads several projects designed to learn more about how foamy viruses replicate and change their genetic structure. Her team also collaborates with University of Washington researchers on a large study in Bangladesh of monkey-to-human transmission of foamy viruses.

In this South Asian nation, where humans settled on land once dominated by primates, the two species regularly come into contact, with potential implications for how the virus moves between them.

Before her accident, Linial was thinking about retirement. With scores of publications and a prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science fellowship to her name, she thought it might to time to step away from the lab bench.

Then she realized she feels as strong of a connection to her science as ever, even though she now relies on an assistant and specialized software to help her read and write.

“My science has always been driven by a passion for discoveries that could bring an enormous benefit to people,” she said. “That still drives me today.”

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