Project Wonder - The art of science at the Medical College of Wisconsin

Silent Stowaway or Trojan Horse

Research by Dr. Vera Tarakanova
Sculpture by Michelle Anomaly
Video by Alex Boyes and Dan Ollman
Soundtrack by Alex Boyes

While many mobile phones are tucked away in pockets or purses, chances are that anyone you meet in the US owns one even if it is hidden from your view. Although the technology is a mere 50 years old, it has spread far and wide with 19 of every 20 Americans possessing a mobile phone in 2018 according to a study by the Pew Research Center. People in the US also are carrying around a much more ancient invader at roughly the same rate.

Most individuals encounter the intrusive Epstein-Barr virus as children or teenagers since it is so ubiquitous and easily spread. Infected children generally experience few if any symptoms and parents generally don’t know that their child has picked up a lifelong infection with Epstein-Barr virus. However, when the virus is first acquired in adolescence or beyond, it can cause infectious mononucleosis, or mono. People typically recover relatively quickly from this once-in-a-lifetime condition once the Epstein-Barr virus has settled down after establishing its deep-rooted refuge in certain cells.

Within its human hosts, the virus typically hides away in a passive state. Stress to the body or changes in the immune system can cause Epstein-Barr virus to become much more active. This increase in activity is the first step towards cancer that is driven by Epstein-Barr virus in a small percentage of people. Although it is a rare event, because of how many people harbor lifelong Epstein-Barr viral infections, experts estimate that the virus is associated with approximately one percent of all cancers.

Vera Tarakanova, PhD, MCW professor of microbiology and immunology, studies gammaherpesviruses such as Epstein-Barr virus to better understand their interactions within their human hosts. Her goal is to better understand how the virus infiltrates and manipulates our immune systems to develop and maintain a lifelong infection, and whether the virus’s subterfuge contributes to the development cancer. If it does, investigating how this happens may provide clues to predicting who is at risk of suffering from a gammaherpesvirus-associated cancer so they can be monitored and treated as early as possible. This knowledge also may help scientists develop a way to prevent a gammaherpesvirus-associated cancer from forming.

Epstein-Barr virus infects humans by sneaking into our B cells, which are immune system cells residing throughout our bodies that create antibodies to target bacteria, viruses and other foreign substances so they are labeled for destruction by other immune cells. Once inside the B cell, Epstein-Barr virus causes the cell to undergo the process that trains a B cell to produce antibodies against a specific threat. In this case, the B cells end up producing antibodies for irrelevant nonviral substances rather than those that would target Epstein-Barr virus. Many B cells that undergo this process become memory B cells, which the body allows to circulate in the blood stream for decades to establish long-term protection against a particular hazard. Under the effects of the Epstein-Barr virus, the new memory B cells are harmless to the virus and end up serving as a safe and stable home for the virus for many years.
Scientists have shown that this procedure preparing B cells to produce antibodies against an identified invader, called B-cell differentiation, can be risky. B cells grow and divide quickly at this time, which can lead to mutations especially when too many B cells are produced. At this stage, B cells can become cancerous. In fact, B-cell differentiation is the catalyst for most B-cell lymphomas. By studying how Epstein-Barr viral infections can lead to cancer, Dr. Tarakanova and her team are learning what conditions make the virus a silent stowaway posing relatively minor risks as opposed to a Trojan Horse. This may allow scientists and physicians to find ways to prevent this common conspirator from causing cancer.

Researcher Bio: Dr. Vera Tarakanova

Vera Tarakanova_Academic Profile (1)
I have a long-standing interest in virus-host interactions, particularly as it applies to cancer-associated viruses. Our current research focuses on gammaherpesviruses. Gammaherpesviruses infect >95% of all humans and the infection is never cleared. Importantly, gammaherpesviruses drive the development of several malignancies, including lymphomas. While it is clear that not every infected human will develop virus-driven lymphoma, the risk factors for viral lymphomagenesis remain poorly defined and it is next to impossible to predict individual’s risk of developing gammaherpesvirus-driven cancer, a knowledge gap we aim to tackle. Our research group utilizes the mouse gammaherpesvirus-68 (MHV68) model to study the entire spectrum of virus-host interactions: from viral and cellular molecular mechanisms using cultures of primary immune cells to chronic infection of an intact host to viral pathogenesis. Our group’s research interests are broad and interdisciplinary and span several fields, including molecular and cellular biology, signaling networks, animal models of viral infection and disease, innate and adaptive immune responses, and metabolism. Our trainees become highly sought-after interdisciplinary scientists, with the training supported by numerous external and internal collaborations.

Visit Dr. Tarakanova's Profile


Artist Bio: Michelle Anomaly

Michelle Anomaly Portrait
Hello! My name is Michelle Anomaly and I’m a glass and metal sculptor from Little Prairie, Wisconsin. I first started designing in three dimensions when I was child using fabric as a medium. Growing up, my father was a welder, and other family members worked with metal as well. I think I was around 13 years old the first time I tried welding. I didn’t weld much though until I was going to college and working part time as a welder for my dad’s welding business. I really grew to love working with metal during that time. It was like sewing, but with fire! Later in life I took a class on stained glass, and it wasn’t long before I started combining the two mediums. My first piece in this style was an eight-by four-foot outdoor sculpture titled “Eye in the Sky.” This became my favorite way of sculpting, but occasionally I will use other mediums such as clay or plexiglass. I love learning and experimenting with new ways of doing things. I always look forward to seeing what my next sculpture will be!

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Artist Statement: "Oops!"

Nails, steel and glass 2023

I’m so grateful for this opportunity to create a visual interpretation of Dr. Vera Tarakanova’s research through Project Wonder: The Art of Science at MCW. This capsule represents a memory B cell. Inside of it you see a Sasquatch whose fur is made of old, bent, rusty nails. It represents the Epstein-Barr virus, and the spike proteins on its surface. The Sasquatch appears in myth as a mysterious, ancient creature. It is thought to be very good at hiding. The Epstein- Barr virus also is very capable of concealing itself from the human immune system. Most people have no idea that, at this very moment, it most likely is living in some of their white blood cells – in some of YOUR memory B cells! This virus has been hitching rides with humans for eons and about 95 percent of us are infected with it.

Sasquatches in stories don’t seem to cause much trouble, and this one probably spends most of his its time napping or staring up at the stars. The Epstein-Barr virus inside of you is probably doing the same thing, just chilling and hanging out without raising a ruckus. In this sculpture, however, we can clearly see that it has caused damage to its home. Why? Is it just too big and clumsy to live in his its glass house? Maybe it likes to dance on occasion and, this last time, it spun around and – with an “oops!” – poked a hole in the wall. Or maybe it is a cranky creature and keeps taking its frustrations out on its surroundings.

Dr. Tarakanova and her team investigate many questions concerning the Epstein-Barr virus. Why does it sometimes cause cancer? What are the triggers that cause it to damage our cells? Her work is important, and I really hope this visual interpretation piques your interest and leads to better understanding and appreciation of her research.

Watch the Making of "Oops!" - The Epstein-Barr Virus Sculpture

Watch the creative process of local sculptor Michelle Anomaly as she uses glass, nails and other materials from her workshop to bring the elusive Epstein-Barr virus to life.