The study of infectious diseases has played a central role in defining the NIH since its inception in 1887 as a hygiene laboratory, created specifically to combat public health epidemics of the time. The concept of a virus, an infectious particle that is generally much smaller than most bacteria, would not be published until 1892, five years after the NIH was established. Since that time, researchers around the world have identified thousands of different viruses, many of which still cause massive morbidity and mortality, despite intense global efforts to create anti-viral therapies.
Intramural Research Program (IRP) scientists are part of a drive to expand knowledge of the biology, pathogenesis, and immunology of viral diseases and to address the clear need for more therapies in this area. Virology research in the IRP is multi-institutional and incredibly diverse, including basic research to understand individual viral particles and their interaction with the host, efforts to fully understand and prevent the many diseases resulting from viral infection, and development of anti-viral therapies and vaccines. Ongoing work at the IRP includes:
- Viral hemorrhagic fevers caused by Ebola virus (EBOV) and Marburg virus (MARV): IRP researchers have developed an Ebola vaccine, which is under clinical trials in Africa.
- Severe influenza symptoms caused by the N1H1 (“Swine flu”) influenza virus: IRP scientists are undertaking research to design N1H1 diagnostics that are faster, more accurate, more cost-effective, and more portable.
- Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): IRP scientists have discovered two potent human antibodies that can stop more than 90 percent of known global HIV strains from infecting human cells.
- Cervical cancer caused by the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV): IRP researchers pioneered work that led to the development of an HPV vaccine (now commercially available).
The IRP is uniquely equipped to research some of these highly contagious and deadly viruses—the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) is able to carry out innovative scientific research on viral agents that require high or maximum containment (biosafety level-2 [BSL-2] to biosafety level-4 [BSL-4]). Only a handful of BSL-4 labs exist within the United States, making the IRP one of the best-equipped institutions to pursue high-risk virology.
Due to the trans-disciplinary nature of virology research, the NIH Virology Scientific Interest Group brings together researchers with an interest in virology. In addition, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has established a Center of Excellence in HIV/AIDS & Cancer Virology.