Researchers led by virology Professor Kylene Kehn-Hall at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine received a $3.3 million from the Department of Defense to study how Eastern equine encephalitis virus changes the brain. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.
Researchers led by virology Professor Kylene Kehn-Hall at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine received a $3.3 million from the Department of Defense to study how Eastern equine encephalitis virus changes the brain. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

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Tech researchers receive $3.3 million to study how equine virus changes the brain

Researchers at Virginia Tech have received grants totalling $3.3 million to study models of how Eastern equine encephalitis virus (EEEV) changes the brain.

The researchers are led by Kylene Kehn-Hall, professor of virology at Virginia Tech’s Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.

EEEV affects a small number of people every year — in 2020, 13 people in the United States were diagnosed — but it is a serious disease. There are no specific antiviral treatments available, and the virus has a mortality rate between 30 and 80 percent. EEEV can cause neurologic disease, which can permanently damage the brains of survivors.

For the past 10 years, Kehn-Hall has studied Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, EEEV’s far milder cousin. To study the lasting effects of EEEV, she will collaborate with researchers from Virginia Tech, George Mason University and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

As part of one grant, Kehn-Hall and her collaborators will develop a mouse model of EEEV’s lasting neurological effects in an attempt to understand the underlying biology and what is happening on the molecular level. They will work toward identifying neurological pathways in hopes of identifying therapeutics that can reverse the damage.  

While other studies have examined models of how the virus kills, Kehn-Hall, along with Barney Bishop of George Mason University and the veterinary college’s Michelle Theus, associate professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology, are looking at survivors.  

As part of the second grant, Kehn-Hall will work with Theus and Hehuang “David” Xie, professor of epigenomics and computational biology. Co-investigators will include Xiaowei Wu, assistant at Virginia Tech College of Science’s Department of Statistics, and John McDonough and Erik Johnson of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense.

The team will compare data regarding traumatic brain injury, organophosphate nerve agent, and encephalitic alphaviruses, which include Venezuelan, Eastern and Western equine encephalitis viruses.  

There is no approved human vaccine for EEEV, but there is an equine vaccine administered yearly. Though EEEV may be deadly and have devastating, lasting effects, the low number of annual cases means there isn’t much incentive for humans to get vaccinated. Because of this, therapeutics are a better option than vaccines.  

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Rafael Davalos. Courtesy of Virginia Tech.

Tech professor named fellow of National Academy of Inventors

Rafael Davalos, the L. Preston Wade Professor in biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering, has been named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors (NAI). 

Davalos joins an elite group of NAI fellows at the university that includes Virginia Tech President Tim Sands and X.J. Meng, University Distinguished Professor of Molecular Virology. 

Davalos, director of the Center for Engineered Health, has made contributions to the fields of cancer detection and treatment using advanced electroporation, biotransport and dielectrophoresis.

His article “Tissue Ablation with Irreversible Electroporation,” published in the Annals of Biomedical Engineering in 2005, has been cited more than 1,300 times, making it the second most cited paper in the journal’s 50-year history.

He currently holds 43 patents and has launched four startup companies.

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Virginia Tech researchers earn national recognition for advances in drone practices

Several faculty members in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are among a national group of university researchers awarded the 2022 Excellence in Multistate Research Award for an ongoing project that has helped accelerate the use of drones in agricultural systems. 

The project, “Research and Extension for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in U.S. Agriculture and Natural Resources,” evaluates and identifies the most reliable, cost-effective and user-friendly drone platforms and sensors for monitoring and managing stressors in agriculture and natural resources. To maximize the accuracy of the data collected, project members developed hardware, software and detailed protocols for calibrating and using drones.

Maria Balota, a professor in the School and Plant and Environmental Sciences and Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center; Daniel Fuka, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; Cully Hession, a professor and graduate program director in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering; and Joseph Oakes, the superintendent of the Eastern Virginia Agricultural Research and Extension Center, represented the university on the team of scientists.

They have been part of this project, which was recently renewed, since 2016.