First Recipient of the Fraser Fellowship

Graham Williams, BA, MSc, Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences (DBBS) pre-doctoral trainee in the laboratory of Adrianus “Jacco” Boon, PhD, Infectious Diseases Division, is the first to receive the Victoria J. Fraser, MD, Fellowship. The award will assist Mr. Williams to test the hypothesis that RNA-RNA interactions within and between genome segments dictate packaging and selection of genome constellations during coinfection. Mr. Williams will use novel molecular biology techniques to determine the regions of a genome important for selection in competitive conditions and if interactions with other segments influence the resulting virus pool.

Williams graduated with a BA in Biochemistry from DePauw University in Greencastle, IN (2010). He went on to complete a MSc at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) in Biology (2011), then entered the Molecular Microbiology and Microbial Pathogenesis (MMMP) program through the Division of Biology & Biomedical Sciences during fall 2011.

“The Fraser Fellowship has enabled me to pursue more extensive research into high-risk areas that other funding mechanisms may not have supported,” says Williams. “Its funding has allowed me to work in a top-notch research laboratory in the Division of Infectious Diseases, where I have helped generate preliminary data in support of multiple NIH proposals studying the virulence and transmission of influenza viruses, which are major human pathogens. These new directions have the potential to inform future vaccine design efforts and impact treatment of patients infected with influenza viruses. Research conducted during my award period has allowed travel to an international conference and facilitated numerous long-lasting scientific and professional connections that will be valuable throughout my career.”

Fraser Fellow research project

Williams’ project, which is supported by the Fraser Fellowship, focuses on understanding how the influenza virus genome is organized. He is using novel techniques in RNA biology and next-generation sequencing to elucidate the total structure of the viral genome in an attempt to discover ways to inhibit all influenza strains.

Importance of research

Influenza is a viral infection that attacks your nose, throat and lungs. When a new influenza virus emerges, the human population has little to no immunity against it, so it can spread quickly from person to person. Its complications can be deadly, and the consequences of a flu pandemic could be catastrophic. For example, it is estimated that 21.5 million people around the world died as a result of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. In addition to deaths, treating those infected could overload the health care system. While decades of research have answered some questions that led to improvements in preventing the spread of influenza, many challenging questions, including how the virus mutates, remain.

Currently, scientists develop the influenza vaccine each year by predicting the virus strain based on what is known about influenza. However, they sometimes predict incorrectly and the vaccine is ineffective. Understanding how mutations occur will enable scientists to pinpoint the next strain. As a member of Boon’s lab, Williams is part of a team engaged in work to understand how the influenza virus mutates. This is a very complex question that will take keen minds, fresh ideas and strong collaboration to answer. With this knowledge, their goal is to create better vaccines that will stop influenza with accuracy and thus prevent the pandemic spread of this deadly virus.

Research progress

The Fraser Fellowship’s funding has enabled Williams to generate preliminary data for multiple NIH-NIAID funded research proposals. In an era of declining federal funding for research, having strong preliminary data is key to successfully competing for dollars that will take research to the next level toward discoveries, new treatments and cures. Additionally, through this fellowship, Williams has forged many inter-departmental collaborations within Washington University School of Medicine to strengthen and advance studies in the Boon Lab.

Future impact of research

Understanding the overall structure of this RNA virus genome may result in novel drug-targets to treat influenza infection. Ultimately, this would mean vaccines with greater power to stop the spread of influenza because the vaccines would be personalized to respond to the latest mutations.

Williams has several manuscripts in preparation and was awarded the best basic science poster by a trainee by the Washington University in St. Louis Center for Global Health and Infectious Diseases conference in 2014.

Learn more about the Victoria J. Fraser, MD, Fellowship »