Yale professor awarded $1.5 million for high-risk virology research

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Allison Didychuk’s work studying the packaging mechanisms of herpesviruses earned her the DP2 New Innovator’s Award from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Samantha Liu

1:57 am 11/3/2022

Contributing Reporter


Courtesy of Allison Didychuk

Allison Didychuk has been studying the biochemistry of a cancer-causing herpes virus since arriving at Yale in July. With a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Didychuk’s lab now plans to further deepen its knowledge of the genome packaging and transcription processes of this virus.

Didychuk, an assistant professor of molecular biology and biochemistry, has focused her research on the elusive cancer-causing Kaposi’s sarcoma-associated herpesvirus. There is currently a vaccine — but no cure — for every herpes virus, and most antiviral treatments only target a single protein.

These large, double-stranded DNA viruses have proven difficult to combat due to their latent nature, lying hidden in the body and multiplying for decades before showing outward signs of infection.

“[These are] very clever viruses that have co-evolved with us for hundreds of millions of years, and the fact that they’re able to produce latency means they’re really hard to get rid of,” Didychuk told News.

However, Didychuk’s lab has uncovered a possible new route to the goal: the packaging machinery that compresses the KSHV genome into a capsid — a viral protein envelope — via a powerful molecular motor. Due to the rigidity and size of the herpesvirus DNA, the resulting capsule is under immensely high pressure — 10 times that of a bottle of champagne, according to Didycyuk.

By learning and sharing how this packaging process works from a biochemical perspective, Didychuk hopes to lay a foundation for new drugs targeting herpesvirus replication.

Specifically, Didychuk’s grant proposal was aimed at investigating a new FDA-approved drug that targets the herpes virus packaging machinery. She was intrigued by the fact that this drug was only effective against one type of herpesvirus and the lack of biochemical studies on its function.

Didychuk’s request was supported by NIAID, which awarded her the DP2 New Innovator’s Award. This award, which provides $300,000 in grants annually, is given to young scientists who have proposed high-impact projects in fields such as the biomedical field.

“[It was] the most exciting morning,” Didychuk said upon hearing the news of the award. “When you come to a place like Yale where everyone is brilliant … just having a little recognition … makes me feel like I can actually do this job.”

In her proposal, she took a deeper look at the biochemical workings of the new drug to suggest new avenues for treating herpesviruses – how to improve the drug’s design or create complementary drugs that target a different part of the viral machinery.

“I can say with confidence that Dr. Didychuk will be a very successful one that will positively influence and transform the scientific community,” Mayte Cerezo Matías, a postgraduate fellow at the Didychuk lab, wrote to the news. “[Her award] from NIAID assures me of this, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be part of such an incredible community that Dr. Didychuk created.”

Before coming to Yale, Didychuk did postdoctoral research in the Glaunsinger Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. There she fell in love with virology and learned how to apply her knowledge of structural biology and biochemistry to decode viral interactions.

Although she worked in graduate school in an unrelated subject, yeast splicing, Didychuk said it was “particularly encouraging” to see how she could “take risks and break into a new field.”

Now, as a junior faculty member at the School of Medicine, Didychuk is busy setting up her new lab. She acts as a mentor to several trainees, including Sara Gelles-Watnick MED ’26, who described Didychuk as a “brilliant scientist and thoughtful mentor,” adding that she is “fortunate enough to learn from her every day.”

Didychuk joked that this grant gave her “a little breathing space” in managing her lab’s funding. The DP2 New Innovator’s Award falls under NIAID’s High Risk, High Reward program, which reduces the financial stress of experimenting with particularly novel approaches.

“They give you this money and say ‘shoot for the moon’ and then you see what you can do with it,” Didychuk said.

The DP2 New Innovator’s Award is sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.

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