The Överby lab is focusing on different aspects of tick-borne encephalitis virus from molecular virology and host pathogen interactions to pathogenicity and innate immunity by combining different in vivo and in vitro systems.
When the COVID-19 pandemic caused by SARS-Cov-2 broke out, the lab of Anna Överby Wernstedt was working on another positive strand RNA virus: the tick borne encephalitis (TBE) virus. Anna has a PhD in cell biology and virology and became interested in the TBE virus when she was working as a postdoc at the University of Freiburg.
The disease caused by TBE is still rare around Umeå, but it is on the rise in Sweden as the ticks that spread it are increasingly common. Anna recommends people that travel to the archipelago around Stockholm, or the west coast to get vaccinated against TBE. Although the chance that you get infected is small, 30-50% of people that get infected develop chronic symptoms.
Anna’s research team is trying to decipher why only certain cells become infected and how the TBE virus can enter and infect the brain. Answering these questions builds the fundamental knowledge that is needed for other researchers and clinicians to develop antiviral drugs, as no treatments are currently available.
When COVID-19 started to spread in Sweden, Anna felt urged to make a difference and started to collaborate with various physicians to test the effectiveness and molecular function of various drugs that were used in the clinic. Her laboratory already had a license to work with dangerous viruses and could apply the tools and methods that they had developed for TBE to quickly start studying SARS-CoV-2. Special funding from SciLife KAW, Hjärt-Lungfunden and the Medical faculty, made this possible.
For the SARS-CoV-2 research, the lab of Anna Överby Wernstedt uses cell lines in which the virus can be grown and also a primary lung cell model that Annasara Lenman developed. Together with Mattias Forsell, a sensitive ELISA kit was created to test if people who had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 had developed antibodies. During the initial development of this kit, Anna’s research team tested if these antibodies could inactivate the virus. In collaboration with Maria Lundgren from Skåne, Anna investigated the treatment of COVID-19 patients with blood serum from recovered patients that contained these inactivating antibodies. Together with Andreas Josefsson, the potential treatment of patients with a prostate cancer drug that is known to downregulate an enzyme (TMPRSS2) important for SARS-CoV-2 entry into cells, was evaluated in clinical trials.
Even though this has been an exciting time, Anna Överby Wernstedt is currently trying to write down all results and finish the COVID-19 projects to be able to again focus completely on her TBE research, for which she received a VR Consolidator grant in the fall 2020.
Transmission electron microscope image of a cell infected with the TBE virus. The replication vesicles and virions can be seen as round vesicles inside the endoplasmic reticulum. Image taken in collaboration with Vsevolod L. Popov, at the UTMB (The University of Texas Medical Branch) in the USA.
PhotoVsevolod L. Popov
This transmission electron microscope image, taken by Linda Sandblad from the Umeå centre for electron microscopy, shows a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle (colored in blue with the characteristic spike proteins in red) produced and purified in the lab of Anna Överby Wernstedt.