Self-discovery is a theme that unites Sun Hur’s life and work. Growing up with a passion for physics, Hur pursued a scientific career in chemistry before launching her own research group in biology. Today, Hur, an investigator in Boston Children’s Hospital’s Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine (PCMM), uses her considerable intellectual gifts to uncover how the immune system distinguishes self from non-self.
In the video above, produced by the Vilcek Foundation (which honors and supports foreign-born scientists and artists who have made outstanding contributions to society in the United States), Hur talks about her personal and scientific journey since coming to the U.S. from her native South Korea in 2000. Overcoming cultural and language barriers, she has turned her childhood fascination with order and chaos toward exploring how the innate immune system recognizes invaders, in particular disease-causing viruses that generate a double-stranded RNA during replication.
If you follow cancer biology, then you’ve probably heard of ubiquitin before. Ubiquitin tags a cell’s damaged or used proteins and guides them to a cellular machine called the proteasome, which breaks them down and recycles their amino acids. Proteasome-blocking drugs like Velcade® that go after that recycling pathway in cancer cells have been very successful at treating two blood cancers—multiple myeloma and mantle cell lymphoma—and may hold promise for other cancers as well.
Less well known, however, is the fact that ubiquitin helps normal, healthy cells raise an alarm when viruses attack. Ubiquitin works with a protein called RIG-I, part of a complex signaling pathway that detects viral RNA and triggers an innate antiviral immune response.
Our immune system has immense powers of observation. It needs to in order to fend off the millions of bacteria, viruses, fungi, you name it, that we get exposed to every day.
I’m not talking about antibodies and T cells—parts of the immune system’s adaptive arm, which is fine-tuned to recognize a specific virus or bacterium. Rather, I’m talking about pattern recognition proteins—biological sensors capable of recognizing features and structures that only bacteria or viruses have. These make up the immune system’s innate arm, which essentially primes the body to attack anything that looks remotely like it doesn’t belong.
For instance, our cells carry sensors that can detect double-stranded RNA (dsRNA), which certain kinds of viruses use to encode their genome—like the rotavirus, which causes severe diarrhea in infants and small children. Our genome, by contrast, is encoded in DNA, and the RNA we make is single-stranded; if there’s dsRNA present, it means there’s a virus around.