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When Passion and Skill Converge
by Brian Vastag
A supportive mentor and a Gilliam fellow find a new drug target against a virus that strikes hardest in poor, rural regions.
In the spring of 2007, Jonathan Abraham came home—in a sense. The Harvard M.D./Ph.D. student returned to a familiar place, the laboratory of HHMI structural biologist Stephen Harrison. Three years earlier, Abraham, then a Harvard undergraduate, had joined Harrison’s lab at Harvard Medical School as part of HHMI’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. to learn about viral mechanics—specifically, how pathogens like HIV and Ebola grab onto and enter cells.
To Abraham’s disappointment, his undergraduate project with Harrison didn’t produce publishable results. But this time, Abraham was onto something exciting and Harrison was just the person to help. Working with Harvard virologists Hyeryun Choe and Michael Farzan, Abraham had isolated the human cell surface receptor that an obscure but deadly South American virus, called Machupo virus, latches onto during infection. Nature published the paper in 2007.
While planning his next step and reading up on the molecule, called transferrin receptor 1, Abraham discovered that his old mentor had a history with it too: Harrison and co-workers had determined the molecular structure of the transferrin receptor in the 1990s.
“It was obvious that I should go back to Harrison’s lab and start a collaboration,” says Abraham, who is funded by an HHMI Gilliam Fellowship for Advanced Study. “It felt like coming back to my family.”
Illustration: VSA Partners