On his way out of high school, Benjamin tenOever had his sights set on becoming a doctor and, in his words, “making the world a better place.” But, when he started learning about the complex structure of viruses in his basic biology courses at McGill University in Montreal, he began “to find viruses much more intriguing.”
In choosing to become a researcher, tenOever, now a virologist and associate professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has taken a professional trajectory that could lead to new treatments for viral infections that afflict millions of people.
Key to his deflection into research, he notes, was a book he read as a sophomore: Peter Radetsky’s The Invisible Invaders. This account of the history of microbiology fanned tenOever’s enthusiasm for viruses so much that by the time the class was complete, his career path was set.
He earned his Ph.D. in experimental medicine at McGill, then a postdoctoral position at Harvard University’s Molecular and Cellular Biology department, where he investigated the molecular structure underlying viral infections.
Influenza kills tens of thousands of people every year in the U.S. “The objective of my lab is to develop a better way to make vaccines, not just for influenza, but for any virus that may threaten humanity,” says tenOever.
As one of 20 early-career scientists chosen in 2008 to be a Pew Biomedical Scholar, tenOever is drilling deep into the molecular anatomy of viruses. In his lab, he made a remarkable discovery: All three types of the influenza virus—A, which includes seasonal and pandemic varieties, and the usually less dangerous B and C types—rely on a particular type of genetic molecule, known as small viral ribonucleic acid (svRNA), to replicate.
If he can find a practical way of blocking the action of svRNA, he just might open a clinical route to stopping viral infections. This has an enormous potential payoff, given that “it all started from risky research gone bad,” tenOever says.
He originally set out to determine the role of a particular class of biomolecules related to svRNA, known as microRNAs (miRNA), in a cell’s response to an attacking flu virus. But his experiments indicated that miRNA has no such function. According to tenOever, the virus and miRNA exist in different worlds.
It was a dead end, but without it, he notes, he might never have uncovered svRNA as a potentially universal target for new antiviral treatments. He also credits the funding from the Pew Biomedical Scholar program for enabling him to pursue long-shot research that many other funding sources would not have supported.
“The work set a precedent in the lab that just because a project fails doesn’t mean it’s not going to lead to a new route and new results,” tenOever says.
Since 1985, the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences has been supporting promising early-career scientists in the health sciences—particularly young researchers with innovative approaches and ideas.
- Date added:
- Jan 17, 2012
- Biomedical Research
2012 Pew Biomedical Scholar Kathryn E. Wellen, Ph.D and 1994 Pew Biomedical Scholar Gary H. Gibbons, M.D. discuss the impact that being a Pew Biomedical Scholar has had on their lives and careers.