ASU researchers fight West Nile Virus with plants

Applied sciences professor Qiang Chen and his research team are attempting to develop plant-based methods to curb the effects of West Nile Virus.

Chen and his peers at the Center for Infectious Disease and Vaccinations believe they have found ways to restrict all stages of the virus.

“Our goal has always been to attack all aspects of the virus, starting with the surveillance of virus-carrying animals, to better detection methods in humans and finally to develop the preventative vaccines for those already suffering,” Chen said.

West Nile Virus has hit Arizona especially hard.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 103 diagnosed cases of West Nile Virus in Arizona between January and the end of October. Three of those cases resulted in death.

Chen said contemporary methods of detecting West Nile examine cell cultures from serum or cerebrospinal fluid or tissues.

These tests are generally limited in what they can detect, and accuracy has proven inconsistent.

“These are other viruses, called flaviviruses, that have characteristics similar to West Nile,” Chen said. “Current tests inform us about which group of flavivirus are at work but don’t deduce whether or not you actually have West Nile.”

Chen said though he is optimistic about the work he and his team has produced thus far, it’ll be a while before a worldwide cure for West Nile Virus can be declared.

“I am anxious to put something on the market for those who need it,” Chen said. “Unfortunately, drug development is a very complicated process that doesn’t happen overnight.”

Applied biological sciences senior Kahlin Leuzinger, a member of Chen’s research team, cultivates the plants and genetically modifies bacteria DNA.

Leuzinger said the plants used in the study could produce a special substance that affects West Nile Virus.

“These plants offer a robust system to produce large volumes of the reagents necessary for the detection and diagnosis of the disease,” Leuzinger said. “Working with plants is a practical, cost-effective alternative to mammalian, insect or bacterial cell systems.”

Professor Roy Curtiss, director of the Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology department at the Biodesign Institute, has dedicated much research to studying various infectious diseases, though he is not part of Chen’s team.

Curtiss has worked for years to develop vaccines meant to combat diseases transmitted by fish, poultry, swine and cattle.

Curtiss said it’s important to develop disease-specific tests that can quickly narrow down which ailment the patient has because no two viruses are the same.

“When you can work out more accurate methods of what these people are specifically infected with, your chances of defeating said disease improve,” Curtiss said. “West Nile Virus has already found a home in Arizona, and it’s up to us to find new ways to fight it.”


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