Early last March – before social distance became a verb and mask wearing turned into a habit for most Americans – graduate student Ian Boys and his mentor, Associate Professor of Microbiology Dr. John Schoggins, received a special package. In it was a single vial of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The sample had been isolated from early cases in Washington state as COVID was quickly spreading into a worldwide pandemic.
Mr. Boys already had the specialty training needed to safely handle SARS-CoV-2. His dissertation research, which involves the study of flaviviruses – a family of viruses that includes the potentially deadly West Nile, dengue, and yellow fever viruses – had required countless hours of work in the lab’s biosafety level 3 (BSL3) facility. Based on the findings he has made involving flaviviruses and his collaborative work on other viral diseases, Mr. Boys, a member of the Immunology Graduate Program, is this year’s recipient of the Nominata Award, the highest honor bestowed upon an advanced student of the UT Southwestern Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.
“When I read the email notifying me of the award, I was in disbelief for a minute,” said Mr. Boys, who is completing his last year as a graduate student and will earn his Ph.D. this month. “It was something completely off my radar, and it was absolutely exciting news.”
The Graduate Student Organization created the Nominata Award in 1980 to promote academic excellence and research achievement among graduate students. The winner receives a monetary award and presents their research to the UT Southwestern community, which Mr. Boys did in a virtual University Lecture on May 12. On May 28, he will defend his dissertation.
Mr. Boys grew up in Allen, Texas, with parents whose backgrounds are in science. They encouraged him to be curious, he remembered, traits further bolstered by a high school biology teacher and mentors as an undergraduate at Baylor University.
In January 2016, Mr. Boys joined the Schoggins lab – his second stint there after participating earlier in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. At the start of his graduate studies, he began working on a project to identify new antiviral effector proteins: species-specific proteins that defend a host against a viral infection.
He and his colleagues were particularly interested in searching for these intriguing proteins in bats, animals that are a rich source of zoonotic viruses – which can jump among species. Research by the World Health Organization and others has suggested that bats are the original source of SARS-CoV-2, which probably passed through another animal host before it infected the first human.
After conducting a broad screen for antiviral effector proteins in a bat cell line, Mr. Boys and his colleagues narrowed their results to the most promising targets. They found that receptor transporter protein 4 (RTP4) is a powerful inhibitor of deadly human flaviviruses including Zika, West Nile, and hepatitis C. Importantly, they found that RTP4 from humans is an inhibitor of Entebbe bat virus, a flavivirus that specifically infects bats. This finding, published in Cell Host & Microbe in November 2020, highlights at least 100 million years of an evolutionary arms race in which viruses and their hosts compete for survival.
The research could lead to new therapies for infections caused by different flaviviruses, Mr. Boys said. He has continued to search for antiviral effector proteins in other vertebrate species, including amphibians.
“I am delighted to learn that Ian is this year’s recipient of the Nominata Award,” Dr. Schoggins said. “Ian has generated an impressive body of work that is changing how we think about the interactions of viruses with their vertebrate hosts over long evolutionary time scales. By studying antiviral mechanisms from humans to mice to bats to frogs, Ian is charting new territory in our quest for a deeper understanding of nature’s viral defense systems.”
In March 2020, Mr. Boys joined Dr. Schoggins and other researchers across UT Southwestern and beyond to better understand SARS-CoV-2. Tag-teaming in puffy containment suits in the BSL3 facility, Mr. Boys and Dr. Schoggins collaborated with colleagues to identify immune proteins, drugs, and other compounds that might inhibit this virus.
In July, Mr. Boys will be headed to a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of evolutionary geneticist Dr. Nels Elde at the University of Utah to continue studying how viruses and their hosts have evolved over time. Mr. Boys eventually hopes to run his own laboratory.
“I’ve gotten to where I am because I have had great mentors throughout the years,” he said. “I want to give back to academia and the scientific endeavor by helping to train more scientists in the future.”