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Of Mice and Men

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Assistant biology professor Adam Hersperger, Ph.D., holds up a tiny vial of mousepox.

With the addition of assistant professor of biology Adam Hersperger, Ph.D., Abright College will offer a course dedicated to virology and students will get hands-on experience working with mammalian viruses, including mousepox.

by Hilary Bentman

In a laboratory in Albright College’s Science Center, Adam Hersperger, Ph.D., reaches into a mini refrigerator and removes a tiny vial containing a trace amount of a cloudy-white substance.

That substance is a highly-concentrated form of ectromelia virus, more commonly known as mousepox. The lesion-causing disease, which can be fatal in mice, doesn’t affect humans and there are no rodents to be found.

Instead, Hersperger’s students will work with the virus to learn some fundamental research principles, including the finer points of microscopy and how to grow cells and manipulate DNA.

“You can use mousepox as a model system to study the interplay between a virus and a host’s immune system,” says Hersperger, and such research can potentially be applied to the fight against human disease.

Hersperger, an assistant professor of biology, joined the Albright faculty this fall, following a post-doctoral fellowship at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

This spring, Hersperger will teach what is believed to be Albright’s first course dedicated to virology. Previously the subject was handled in a microbiology course, where it competed with bacteria for time and attention. For the new course, Hersperger has brought three mouse viruses to campus for students to study: mousepox (his specific research interest), along with cytomegalovirus (herpes) and a strain of influenza.

“There are so many different kinds of viruses. We’ll focus on clinically relevant issues and human viruses,” said Hersperger, who received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied HIV immunology.

“My graduate work snagged me and I fell in love with studying viruses and what affects people,” he added. “But my goal was to be at a small college like Albright with a liberal arts center and a focus on teaching.”

Mousepox is an excellent teaching tool. For one, the virus, almost entirely a laboratory phenomenon, engages in a sort-of cat-and-mouse game with the host. Once infected (via skin abrasion or cut), the mouse will secrete molecules to control the infection but the virus will counter. Mousepox has a lot of genes and Hersperger’s students will learn how to manipulate it, creating mutant strains by knocking out genes and studying the effect on virus growth.

Of course, their work will be confined to petri dishes and test tubes, at least at Albright.

The College does not house laboratory animals. But Hersperger has maintained a collaborative working relationship with his former Thomas Jefferson post-doctoral adviser, Laurence Eisenlohr, VMD, Ph.D.  If Hersperger and his students ever need to test a particular ectromelia virus in a mouse, they can work with Eisenlohr to carry out those infection studies in his laboratory.

“There’s only so much you can do in a petri dish,” said Hersperger.

Assistant biology professor Stephen Mech, Ph.D., says Hersperger is a welcome addition to the department he chairs, particularly for pre-med students interested in virology and disease transmission. But Hersperger can also introduce students to other careers in the field, said Mech.

“Many students think medicine is the only thing you can do with a biology degree,” he said. “He can transition students from that thought and show them research is interesting in its own right.”

Hersperger is also bringing some new equipment to campus that will help students hone their research techniques. With the first round of his start-up funding, Hersperger purchased a flow cytometer, which counts and analyzes populations of cells at the individual level.

Mech calls it a “workhorse of the trade” but most institutions of Albright’s size don’t have one. Hersperger is hoping to add more hardware in the future.

Hersperger is replacing retiring biology professor Gerald Kreider, Ph.D. The department is also losing Richard Heller, Ph.D., to retirement and the College is currently searching for his replacement.

Mech said the goal is to find someone who specializes in evolutionary developmental biology (otherwise known as evo-devo), a relatively new but growing field.

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