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Virus Hunter: UTHSC’s Colleen Jonsson Seeks Answers to Treat Deadly Viruses, Including COVID-19

Dr. Colleen Jonsson has spent her career working to unlock the secrets of some of the most virulent viruses on the planet. She is leading a team at UTHSC to develop an antiviral therapeutic for COVID-19. (Photo by Brandon Dill)

It’s 105 degrees in June in the jungle of Paraguay, and Colleen Jonsson and her students are hunting a killer. They’re sweating under heavy biosafety gear and working in a makeshift lab set up on the porch of a house owned by the World Wildlife Federation.

Their elusive prey is the hantavirus, a rodent-borne disease that has killed thousands across the globe. The scientists are trying to understand hanta at its molecular level, how it acts and reacts, how it replicates and spreads, and what molecules or combination of molecules can be used to stop it. It is an ongoing quest.

Today, there is a more immediate, and possibly even more deadly, threat at home, and Dr. Jonsson and her team are meeting it head-on. A PhD virologist and professor in the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Biochemistry at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Dr. Jonsson has her sights set on the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which has circled the globe in a matter of months.

As the director of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory (RBL) at UTHSC, one of roughly a dozen federally funded labs authorized to study deadly pathogens, she is leading a team to find antivirals or drugs that might treat COVID-19.

Building a Research Career

Dr. Jonsson originally studied to be a biologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, her hometown. “When I started my research career, I was very interested in plant-pathogen interactions,” she said. “My perspective was that plants had a lot of different pathogens and they needed to be understood better, so we could create better environments to produce plants.” As an undergraduate, she worked as a technician at Monsanto in St. Louis during the summers.

She studied fungal interaction in graduate school at Purdue University. Then, seeking a different path for asking research questions in her postdoctoral work, she began to look at retroviruses. It was 1990 and the early days of the HIV outbreak in the United States. She sought to understand one of the proteins in that virus and how it worked.

Dr. Jonsson was recruited to New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, New Mexico, just as the initial outbreak of the hantavirus occurred in the early 2000s. “It was a new virus in the United States and not many people were working on it, and I thought it would be a good direction for my research to take,” she said.

Over a period of about five years she would often travel from the university to the highest-level biosafety research labs at the United States Army Research Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland, to do hantavirus research.

Dr. Jonsson, front row center, and her team are shown on a recent fieldwork mission to conduct hantavirus research in Paraguay.

She also began periodic fieldwork to track the virus in one of its natural hotspots in the Chaco region of western Paraguay. “There was an outbreak in Paraguay, and as luck would have it, which is my whole life, I had a student in my lab who was from Paraguay,” she said. Strictly a lab researcher up to that point, Dr. Jonsson and her team members went to that country, conducted workshops, and trainings, and met scientists with whom she collaborates on hantavirus research and fieldwork to this day.

“The questions we’ve been working on are simple: Where is the virus, how does the virus maintain itself in nature, and what is it that promotes or accelerates the emergence of the virus to a level that it becomes a public health risk,” Dr. Jonsson said. Essentially, when in Paraguay, they research the virus in its animal hosts in order to understand it better. “The only way to truly answer those questions is to work in essentially what is a jungle, because in the jungle, we can understand what life is like for the virus in nature.”

Many Viruses, Many Questions

“They say with these viruses, it’s not a matter of if they (outbreaks) are going to happen, it’s a matter of when,” Dr. Jonsson said. Her life’s work has given her a practical point of view on the viruses that terrify us all. “I’m not Captain Marvel. It’s more of a scientific conundrum that you want to answer.”

Dr. Jonsson was recruited to Southern Research, an institute affiliated with the University of Alabama at Birmingham to grow an antiviral research program in its Level 3 biocontainment facility. There, her research expanded to antiviral drug discovery for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), influenza, H5N1 (avian influenza), West Nile Virus, and alphaviruses. Her lab developed the first high throughput screening in high containment (a high-volume testing procedure) outside of industry and tested compounds (small molecules) from companies all over the United States for their potential to treat Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS).

Simply put, these small molecules would be ones that bind with spikes or areas on the individual viruses and block their spread. They are the crux of her lifetime quest.

In 2008, she moved to the University of Louisville to continue her antiviral research and begin the research programs and operations for the newly constructed Regional Biocontainment Laboratory there.

“Hopefully, all of our work will eventually translate into a better understanding of how these viruses emerge, but at the same time, we can begin to have a pipeline of small molecules for these particular pathogens,” she said.

A New Foe Emerges

Dr. Jonsson was recruited to UTHSC in 2017 to direct and raise the research profile of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory, a Level 3 biosafety lab among the few commissioned after 9/11 in response to the threat of bioterrorism.

In less than two years, she secured a $21 million National Institutes of Health grant to set up a Center of Excellence in Encephalitic Alphavirus Therapeutics at the UTHSC RBL to discover antiviral therapeutics for deadly viruses spread not only to horses but to people by infected mosquitoes. She collaborates with investigators at several universities, and this alphavirus work, as well as her previous work on other viruses, including SARS CoV (the SARS outbreak of 2003), has positioned her to lead her team at UTHSC to face COVID-19.

The RBL received live samples of the coronavirus in late February. Dr. Jonsson and her team began growing the samples so they would have enough to test against compounds (small molecules) that could prove to be treatments.

Jeremy Smith, PhD, professor at UT-Knoxville and director of the UT/Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) Center for Molecular Biophysics called Dr. Jonsson to collaborate on testing molecules identified by the supercomputer at ORNL as possible candidates to work against the virus. The UTHSC team is also testing candidates for industry. To do this, the virus is placed in tiny wells of a plastic tray, the small molecule candidates are added, and the results analyzed. With high-throughput screening, many candidates can be tested rapidly.

“She is a world-class virologist with lots of experience working with viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Smith said, as to why he wanted to work with Dr. Jonsson.

Asked what she wants people to know about this work, Dr. Jonsson again is matter of fact. “When coronavirus breaks out, there are people in Memphis working on understanding it and working hard to develop a therapeutic to treat it,” she said.

The immediate outbreak must be addressed, but Dr. Jonsson knows there will be others. That’s what these viruses do: Emerge, go dormant, and then return. She continues to keep her eye on the hantavirus, which popped up again recently in Argentina. She considers it for now “the one that got away,” she said.

“We should be doing outbreak response all the time,” Dr. Jonsson said. “We forget and people move on to the next thing, so there will be always be another something. But what that will be, no one can predict. Nobody has control over emerging infectious diseases.”

This story appeared first in the Spring 2020 issue of Tennessee Alumnus magazine.