Virus researcher Varpu Marjomäki from the University of Jyväskylä has got a handle on enteroviruses, one of the world’s most prevalent disease causing viruses for humans. Her enthusiasm for viruses started two decades ago and is now producing results: one patent has already been registered and two are pending based on work with molecules that kill enteroviruses. The research team has found now that the molecules also seem to work on coronaviruses.
Varpu Marjomäki began researching enteroviruses in 1998, when she joined the research team of Professor Jyrki Heino at the University of Jyväskylä. The zeal to clarify virus infection routes has led Marjomäki to participate in several collaboration studies related to clarifying the basic mechanisms of virus infections, developing vaccines and antivirals, and researching the structure of enteroviruses.
The research target is important, because the group of almost 200 known enteroviruses cause flu and its serious aftereffects for a vast number of people every year. Enteroviruses also cause chronic diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
In recent years, the research groups of the Nanoscience Centre at the University of Jyväskylä have also built up important enterovirus competence. Together with other researchers of the Nanoscience Centre, including Professor Hannu Häkkinen and Mika Pettersson, Marjomäki has developed different probes that can be used to identify viruses or their parts.
Encounter with a fungus researcher sparks an idea of natural antivirals
It was eight years ago that Marjomäki first glimpsed that the solution for preventing enterovirus infections might be found in nature. During a collaboration visit to South Africa, Marjomäki accidently met fungus researcher Riikka Linnakoski.
“In our first discussions, we agreed right away to join forces and start searching for virus-destroying agents from the world of plants and fungi,” says Marjomäki.
Marjomäki’s team investigates molecules that can be called antivirals, with one patent already pending. The two most recent possibilities have been found in Finnish nature. The word antiviral refers to any substance that prohibits the functioning of a virus.
The collaboration has already led to several further studies with the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and two patents pending. Many companies are also interested in the results and involved in future projects.
“The patentable molecules affect the virus structure by either breaking it down or stabilising it. It would be fantastic to have safe natural products that would effectively destroy disease-causing viruses from our environment”, explains Marjomäki who will start as a professor of cell and molecular biology at the University of Jyväskylä on 1 October.
New molecules are able to do what currently available disinfectants cannot.
“Enteroviruses belong to picornaviruses, which are not covered by a lipid membrane,” says Marjomäki. “This means that it is difficult to disinfect the virus from surfaces with alcohol-based solutions.”
Molecules to prevent the operation of coronaviruses
In addition to enteroviruses, the molecules’ effect on coronaviruses is being actively studied.
“Many times the active agents we find are effective against more than enteroviruses. They often work against other virus groups as well,” says Marjomäki.
Marjomäki’s research team is currently focused on coronavirus research and collaboration to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic. Marjomäki and Professor Perttu Permi from the University of Jyväskylä received consortium funding from the Academy of Finland for seeking effective inhibitors to tame the COVID-19 virus infection. The research is based on earlier findings by Marjomäki’s team on enteroviruses.
“Surprisingly, coronaviruses and enteroviruses have much in common,” Marjomäki says. “They both have a structurally very similar protein-digesting enzyme, whose functioning could be effectively prevented with the same inhibitors.”
Marjomäki and Permi are studying these inhibitors and enzyme-digesting mechanisms in collaboration with the Pasteur Institute in Paris and research groups located in Rome and South Africa.
Developing antiviral surfaces that kill the infective capablitlies of coronaviruses
Varpu Marjomäki’s group is also participating in a COVID-19 project run by Antti Haapala, an assistant professor from the University of Eastern Finland. The project aims to clarify how safe different surfaces and materials, especially wood-based materials, are from the coronavirus. The purpose is to clarify how long coronaviruses survive on different surfaces when dampness and temperature fluctuate.
“There is very little research on this topic, and it directly benefits users and the building industry,” Marjomäki says.
Contacts from companies have also boosted research cooperation projects, which may produce very practical solutions for consumers in the battle against viruses.
Marjomäki’s group also studies antiviral surfaces with the researchers of the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke). In summer 2020, Business Finland awarded Co-Creation COVID-19 funding for joint projects that seek new antiviral surfaces in cooperation with companies.
“Our aim is to use antiviral molecules and companies’ materials to develop new products to combat future epidemics and pandemics,” says Marjomäki.
Subscribe to the JYUnity newsletter
Get latest articles from The University of Jyväskylä’s stakeholder magazine into your email. You can cancel your subscription at any time.