Dr Richard Stanton is a lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Medicine. He is doing work that could lead to a vaccine for human cytomegalovirus (HCMV) – a virus that causes many deaths every year.
Many people won’t have heard of human cytomegalovirus, but it will infect the majority of us at some point during our lives.
Once caught, the virus remains dormant inside us and, as long as we remain healthy, it shouldn’t cause any problems.
However if our immune system is weakened, HCMV can be a serious threat. For example in transplant patients, or those who have contracted the HIV virus, HCMV can cause serious illness and even death. If a woman contracts the virus for the first time while pregnant, there can be severe implications for the unborn child, ranging from deafness and brain damage to, tragically, death. My work aims to understand how the virus works in order to develop a vaccine which could save the lives of those at risk.
I’ve always been interested in how (and why) things work (or don’t) – from “fixing” any broken electronics in the house to programming my LEGO robots to destroy my sister’s.
Unsurprisingly, science was my favourite school subject. My first scientific experiment was a summer holiday school project when I was 15, when I decided to monitor the growth and eating habits of caterpillars. I soon realised measuring little wriggling insects wasn’t easy! But I enjoyed the challenge and I found myself thinking of ways to improve it. My desire to specialise in research grew from there, but I decided to graduate from studies of insect diet to something that would directly help people – which is how I landed in disease research.
A major stumbling block when researching HCMV is that the virus behaves differently when it is outside of the human body. Part of my research has been to understand why these changes happen and then find a way to stop them. We succeeded in this, and the viruses we generated are being used internationally by the World Health Organisation to test diagnostic kits. It also means that we are now able to research how the virus behaves in the human body, in the laboratory. The next step is investigating how HCMV infects cells. Understanding this is crucial to developing a vaccine to prevent infection.
Another key area of investigation is why (and how) HCMV is not killed by the immune system. The virus has clearly developed sophisticated ways of hiding from the immune system, allowing it to survive (even if it never becomes active). If we can learn how HCMV does this we will develop insights into how the human immune system works in other diseases, as well as for the development of methods that could prompt the immune system to kill the virus. The research I’m leading is vital to developing treatments not only for HCMV but could have positive discoveries for many other conditions. I get a real boost and sense of purpose from knowing that the science I’m doing may, hopefully one day, save many lives.
To contact Richard email StantonRJ@cf.ac.uk
This article first appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on 14th August, 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.