Neva Caliskan and the Achilles' heel of viruses
“My team and I want to exploit an Achilles' heel of viral pathogens as a target for new drugs,” Neva Caliskan says confidently when asked about her scientific goals. The scientist, who grew up in Turkey, has always been fascinated by viruses. They have developed remarkable tricks to reproduce in the infected host. “Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are extremely small and provide very little space inside them—not even for their own genetic material,” explains Caliskan. Of course, one of the central dogmas in molecular biology, “one gene codes for one protein,” mostly holds true. With some viruses, however, genetic code can be read differently. Here, one gene can provide the blueprint for two or even more proteins.
“We want to exploit an Achilles' heel of viral pathogens as a target for new drugs.”
The Caliskan team is therefore taking a close look at this phenomenon at the cellular as well as single-molecule level. They use the latest techniques, such as single-molecule tweezers, to closely analyze viral RNAs. The genetic material—in this case, a thread-like RNA molecule—can be physically clamped between the arms of an optical tweezer in order to be thoroughly examined. When speaking about the use of such methods at the interface between biology and physics, one can feel Caliskan’s enthusiasm: “If a substance binds to the viral genome and changes its form, we can precisely observe these molecular changes with our tweezers. This tells us whether the substance can interfere with or even block the reading of the viral genetic information, which makes it a potential drug candidate.”
But it's not just science that makes her eyes light up; she is happily married and a mother of two. Thus, it is not uncommon for Neva Caliskan to be asked how she combines family life with a career as a group leader. The trick is to face the challenges that life throws at you, she says, and continues: “Of course, you don't just build a career in science, raise children, and lead a balanced family life. But I do everything with passion—and then it's actually quite easy.”