Humans evolved in a world that is swarming with pathogens. To survive as a species, we developed remarkably good defense mechanisms for fending off diverse, ubiquitous organisms that evolve faster than we do. However, as societies become more mobile, and the genetic soup of whole ecosystems is stirred up by environmental change, human societies are becoming increasingly exposed to lethal infections to which we cannot adapt. Because there is not enough time to find a strategy to fight each new germ, humans must improve their body armor.
We come remarkably well equipped with antiviral sensors that prowl our cells in search of invaders. These Pattern Recognition Receptors (PRRs) provide our first line of defense by recognizing and responding to molecules that are unique to viruses and other pathogens. In my lab, we have developed customized RNA molecules that trigger this early warning system in mammals, thereby preparing the immune system to combat both known and emerging pathogens. By generating a new generation of antiviral therapies and vaccines based on synthetic RNA, we hope to reinforce the excellent security system that is already included in the basic human package.