Chris Benedict

Associate Professor

My laboratory studies the strategies that viruses use to escape detection by our immune system, which help them to replicate in our cells and, in some cases, establish lifelong infections that we can never clear. We have a particular interest in those virus-employed tricks that target proteins of the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) family, as these proteins released by our immune cells are fundamentally important in promoting immunity. We have a particular interest in cytomegalovirus (CMV), which is a member of the herpesvirus family similar to ‘mono’ (Epstein-Barr) and the chicken pox (Varicella zoster) viruses. CMV encodes one of the largest viral genomes (~230,000 base pairs), and more than half of it is dedicated to throwing up smoke screens that fool our immune systems, including many that block the TNFs. We believe that studying the very unique CMV strategies that allow it to evade detection by our immune system facilitates fundamental new discoveries about our health. In addition, our lab is focused on finding new ways to combat the diseases that CMV can cause in certain settings. CMV is the No. 1 infectious cause of birth defects in the U.S. today, causing severe disease if immunity is naïve or compromised (e.g. infection of babies in the womb and transplant patients), and we are developing new vaccine strategies to combat this. If you have a healthy immune system, CMV infection is largely benign. However, like the chicken pox that can reemerge 50 years later to cause shingles, CMV ‘hides’ in your body for life and can pop-out again when your immune system is weakened or older. Consequently, CMV is a likely contributor to auto-inflammatory disorders such as vascular disease and immune senescence, and may even contribute to some cancers. One of our recent discoveries could aid efforts to in the development of a CMV vaccine.