Researching the chikungunya and West Nile viruses

WUR laboratory of virology/Jelke Fros

Jelke Fros, researcher studying the chikungunya and West Nile viruses.

“Because these viruses can adapt to new circumstances relatively quickly and there is a variety in vector species and vertebrate reservoirs, it is a challenging field to work in.”

          – Jelke Fros, PhD researcher at the Laboratory of Virology at Wageningen University, Netherlands

Understanding how the viruses replicate and adapt to human immune responses

I have been working on several vector-borne diseases, especially chikungunya and West Nile virus. My studies aim to understand the way these viruses replicate and adapt to human immune responses. So far we have identified two chikungunya virus proteins that interact with important parts of the innate immune system and are potential targets for the development of antiviral drugs.

Studying whether European mosquitoes can transmit West Nile virus

Additionally, we investigate the interactions between these viruses and their mosquito hosts, with special focus on West Nile virus and the capability of European mosquitoes to become infected and transmit this pathogen. West Nile virus causes sporadic outbreaks in southern Europe, whereas northern Europe has never seen West Nile virus outbreaks. This is somewhat surprising as the mosquito vector (“Culex” genus mosquito) in northern Europe is the same species as the one in the south. Therefore, the question we are answering at this moment is whether or not northern European mosquitoes can become infected with and are able to transmit West Nile virus.  

Testing live, infected mosquitoes in the laboratory

We have a biosafety-level-3 laboratory in which we can work with a number of infectious viruses. This laboratory is also fully equipped to handle live (infected) mosquitoes and requires specific clothing that covers most of the body, to protect you and the environment from viral infections.

In our virus studies we like to know to what extent north European “Culex” mosquitoes are capable of transmitting West Nile virus. When a mosquito takes blood from an infected individual, the mosquito first needs to become fully infected and the virus needs to accumulate in its saliva before the virus can be transmitted with the next bite. To test how efficiently our native mosquitoes do this, we infect mosquitoes and harvest the saliva of each by sticking its proboscis in a pipette tip. Some of the saliva is always deposited in the pipette tip, which we can test for the presence of virus.

We also have a molecular lab where we work with non-infectious materials. Here we can look at specific virus–host interactions by looking at only parts of the viruses. In addition, we are working on vaccine development through our research.

Working with partners

This project is in close collaboration with the Laboratory of Entomology in Wageningen and is part of a consortium funded by the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) called Vector-borne Risks for Europe: Risk assessment and control of West Nile and Chikungunya virus (VECTORIE). The consortium consists of 7 partners from 5 European countries.

Fascinating research field

The field of vector-borne diseases and specifically arthropod-borne viruses is interesting, as these viruses are the cause of many human and veterinary diseases. And because these viruses can adapt to new circumstances relatively quickly and there is a variety in vector species and vertebrate reservoirs, it is a challenging field to work in.