Rushika Perera named American Chemical Society young investigator

A CSU research team in the lab, led by Rushika Perera
Colorado State University Microbiology, Immunology and Pathology associate professor Rushika Perera, right, and researchers Elena Lian and Gabriela Ramirez in the Perera Lab. (William A. Cotton/CSU Photography)

Rushika Perera, Ph.D., an associate professor of RNA virology in the CSU Department of Microbioloy, Immunology, and Pathology, was named a 2020 ACS Infectious Diseases Young Investigator. The award from the American Chemical Society Division of Biological Chemistry recognizes outstanding young investigators in the infectious diseases field who are within 10 years of their last training experience or at the assistant professor level. The society posted this interview by Mia Fields-Hall with Perera:

How did you get into your field of study?

I got into the field of Systems Biology (specifically metabolomics) soon after my post-doctoral studies. It was a really young field then. No one was really doing metabolomics, as they were mostly focused on transcriptomics and proteomics.  I really wanted to look at metabolic changes that viruses induced in their hosts to hijack the host environment for their benefit. It was clear to me that the host environment was being changed significantly by these viruses because when you look at infected cells, their membranes looked so different from uninfected cells. Membrane changes meant that lipids were being altered, and so I realized we needed to look at lipid metabolic pathways. This realization started me on the path I have now taken for the last 10 years, discovering the incredible ways viruses alter our intracellular metabolism to win over the host.

What is the most exciting discovery you have made in your career so far?

That when viruses infect mosquitoes, they alter the mosquito metabolome so significantly to benefit their replication, but do not seem to make the mosquito sick. Also, different viruses such as Zika, dengue, and chikungunya, alter the mosquito metabolome so differently. This provides evidence that they can infect the same mosquito (co-exist) and not have to compete with each other to be transmitted. This was mind-blowing to me.

What are you looking forward to most about your research?

I am very excited to move this field forward and to utilize metabolism as a way to choke virus replication in both the human host and mosquito vector. Most drugs or inhibitors are metabolites. So using these metabolites to divert metabolic pathways to interfere with virus infections (starve the virus of necessary nutrients) is a promising avenue for intervention. Specifically, we can re-purpose many drugs that are already on the market that are used for metabolic diseases such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc., and use them as antivirals – we will only need to use them for a very short period of time to reduce virus replication and give the immune system a chance to overcome the infection.