The PNI Viral Core Facility serves the neuroscience community by developing custom-made tools that can help researchers better understand the nervous system. Over the past few years, the viral core has expanded from offering six services and several serotypes of adeno-associated virus (AAV) to offering 13 services and 21 serotypes. Although most orders that the core receives are for AAV, the viral core also produces retrovirus, pseudorabies, rabies and herpes simplex viruses depending on the needs of the researcher. Nineteen Princeton research labs utilize services from the viral core, with the majority of those research labs coming from within PNI itself. In addition to producing custom-made viruses, the core also provides molecular biology services including plasmids, cloning and genetic sequencing.
With a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the PNI Viral Core Facility recently partnered with the University of Pittsburgh and Thomas Jefferson University to become part of the Center for Neuroanatomy with Neurotropic Viruses (CNNV). Due to this collaboration, researchers from across Princeton University can now request well-characterized strains of pseudorabies, rabies and herpes simplex viruses for circuit analysis at a reduced cost.
The viral core is led by Dr. Esteban Engel. Esteban started his scientific career researching viruses that were affecting the yield and quality of agricultural products. After finishing his PhD, he transitioned to researching viruses that can infect the mammalian brain in Lynn Enquist’s lab at Princeton. During this time, he received emails from researchers asking to use the custom-made viruses that he produced and realized that there is a strong demand for custom-made viral tools in the neuroscience community. Serendipitously, the new PNI building was opening at that time and wanted to incorporate an in-house viral core to meet the needs of the researchers at this new institute.
While the viral core provides services to researchers, the Engel Lab performs research aimed at improving existing viral tools. Their research efforts include making less toxic viruses, creating viruses that can be more efficiently tracked once they enter the nervous system, and making higher yield viruses with less contaminants. Members of the Engel lab have received federal, state and in-house grants to perform this research and have published papers to inform the neuroscience community of the viral tools that they’re developing.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the PNI Viral Core Facility in mid-March, but the core has been following safety guidelines and running at full capacity since mid-June. In the future, Esteban and the viral core aim to expand the services offered to clients, create more efficient viruses and increase their distribution to more laboratories across the world.
by Chris Suriano