A University of Calgary professor will soon find a cure for a common but serious stomach virus thanks to his breakthrough medical research.
Researcher Dr. Kenneth Ng has recently discovered the structure of an essential enzyme in the common Norwalk virus.
"We focus on the proteins that are important for reproduction of the virus," said Ng. "[They are] responsible for copying the genetic material of the [disease]. When the virus infects a cell, it needs to make
copies of its genetic material so that they get released and can infect other cells."
Now that Ng and his team understands the structure of the protein, they are hoping to work with chemists to develop a compound which would inhibit it. Ng explained a similar approach was taken to combat viruses such as AIDS with positive results.
Research has been done at the University of Saskatoon Canadian Light Source facility. The facility opened 11 years ago and has received over $10 million in funding from provincial and federal governments.
"It's actually the biggest single investment of money into a science facility [in Canada]," said Ng. "What's special about that facility is that they produce a lot of different kinds of light or electromagnetic radiation. For our technique, we need a very intense source of X-rays to determine the structures because they're very small. We have a machine in the lab here that will produce [radiographs] that we can do some analysis with, but the
X-rays at the facility are something like 10,000 times the intensity of what we can get in the lab."
A permanent team at CLS worked with the U of C researchers to find the structure of the virus. The researchers also had help from the University of Kansas and the University of Oveido in Spain. The Norwalk virus is highly contagious with short-lived yet severe side-effects. Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and cramping.
"It's actually a serious concern because it's so easily transmitted," said Ng. "Something like
one in five or one in 10 nursing homes will get a Norwalk outbreak every year. It's so infectious, once it gets in, all the old people will get it."
While Norwalk isn't considered to be fatal, deaths can occur if patients have other health conditions or become severely dehydrated. Attention to food handling and hand washing are currently the most effective preventative measures.
Ng and the teams received funding from the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research. AHFMR publications manager Janet Harvey explained the organization has been funding researchers across the province for over
20 years. Although Harvey was unable to disclose the amount of funding given to the Norwalk researchers, the years total amount of funding reached roughly $59 million.
"The standards are very high here, so the people that the foundation funds are the best," stated Harvey. "We only fund excellence. We have several expert committees and they're the ones that review the applications that come in."