Biochemist studying how cells defend against viruses joins UF Scripps

A portrait of James M. Burke, Ph.D., who has joined the molecular medicine department at UF Scripps. He studies how cells defend themselves from viral attack.
James M. Burke, Ph.D. has joined the molecular medicine department at UF Scripps. He studies how cells defend themselves from viral attack.

 JUPITER, Fla. — A new scientist joining UF Scripps Biomedical Research, James M. Burke, Ph.D., is exploring how our innate immune system protects us from viruses — including the pandemic coronavirus — and how viruses evade these defenses.

Burke says he hopes the work will lead to new medicines that thwart viruses’ ability to make copies of themselves inside our cells. And because our cells’ viral defenses can become inappropriately activated and cause other illnesses, the work may contribute to new approaches for treating inflammatory diseases, autoimmune diseases, cancer and more.

“We’re pleased to welcome James Burke to our faculty. His impactful work complements our expertise in the study of viral diseases, autoimmune diseases and RNA biology,” said Patrick Griffin, Ph.D., scientific director and professor of molecular medicine at UF Scripps. “With our unique drug-discovery capabilities, and the clinical and research strengths of the University of Florida’s academic health center, this campus has become a premier research center for up-and-coming scientists to establish their independent programs.”

When a virus infects a cell, it has one goal: hijack the cell’s protein-building systems to make new copies of itself. Multiple immune defense systems work together to interfere with this process. Sorting out how these innate systems are activated in both a healthy and unhealthy manner is important, Burke said. The pandemic revealed large gaps in scientific knowledge in this area, he added.

“I think this pandemic is a wake-up call to start understanding the fundamentals of viral infection and our cells’ response to infection,” Burke said.

Burke joined the molecular medicine department at UF Scripps Biomedical Research in Jupiter, Florida in June following a postdoctoral fellowship with noted biochemist Roy Parker, Ph.D., an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Working with Parker, Burke uncovered the mechanism underlying how cells express critical antiviral genes, such as type I interferons, while simultaneously limiting viral gene expression. He earned his doctorate at the University of Texas, Austin with adviser Christopher Sullivan, Ph.D., where he helped discover how DNA tumor viruses and retroviruses evade host immune responses.

Within cells, many different types of RNA do the work of reading genes and building the information they encode. Better understanding their role is critical to preparing us for the next new viral threat, he said.

“When viruses are evolving so rapidly, we need as many tools as we can,” he said.

Multiple scientists at UF Scripps are joining the $577 million federal effort to develop new antiviral drugs to treat the pandemic coronavirus and other viral threats. Last month the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases announced it is establishing nine multi-institution centers focused on developing new medications to address the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and to treat other viruses with pandemic potential. Seven UF Scripps faculty will contribute to three of those centers.

“UF Scripps is a thriving place to start my research program,” Burke said. “There is a lot of collaboration, a lot of cross-disciplinary studies, and there are drug discovery resources you just don’t have most places.”