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Dr. Luis P. Villarreal - Virologist
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My name is Luis Perez Villarreal. I was born in East Los Angeles. My mother’s side of the family has been in the L.A. area for many generations. During the depression years, my mother briefly left southern California for northern Mexico. That’s where she met my father. I also have three older brothers. I grew up mainly in Los Angeles, spending one year in Arizona, in the cities of Phoenix and Nogales.

I started elementary school when I lived in East L.A. At the time, my father was buying old houses, fixing them up, then re-selling them for profit, so I ended up meandering into the San Gabriel Valley from East L.A., going to eleven grammar schools in the process. I also went to three junior high schools and five high schools. My childhood friends were forever changing and my environment was always in flux. This type of lifestyle can make one very adaptable. My favorite subject in school was science, and I also enjoyed reading on my own.

My job as a scientist now at University of California, Irvine is to explore different kinds of problems with viruses. My career goals are to continue with my research with respect to how viruses are involved with their hosts, contribute to their hosts, how they affect their hosts, as well as how these processes are used by the hosts themselves. Now, you are probably thinking, ”Say what?!”

Okay, I’ll explain to you what is so fascinating about my work.

I became very interested in chemistry because it describes living things in terms of mechanics. In the 1930’s, Wendell Stanley first showed the virus as a crystal. Up until then it was thought that living things and material things, such as crystals, were completely different. What Stanley showed is that living things, the people, plants and animals around us, are made up of chemicals. This illustrated the similarities between the living and physical worlds.

I was among the first scientists to ”program”a living thing using the polyoma virus. You can think about it like this: Part of a virus codes for proteins, and the rest of it acts as the operating system for how the virus should be programmed to function. What we showed is that we could redesign the instructions of the virus so that it would go to other parts of the body and reproduce itself there. Gene therapy is one use. Gene therapy is the use of genetic information that can be used in medicine to cure people. Many of the most widespread diseases are caused by damaged genes. For example if you are a hemophiliac and your blood does not clot if you get a cut, the doctor may be able to cure that disease by reprogramming the genes. Most diseases can be greatly affected by changing the pattern of gene expression. Heart disease, brain tumors, cancer and HIV all could potentially be cured using gene therapy strategies.

A virus usually attaches itself to what we call a host and sometimes it can help contribute to the livelihood of its host by changing its environment and showing it how to evolve. The best way to explain this is to describe the reproductive habits of a certain kind of wasp. This wasp is a solitary wasp called a Parasitoid. This wasp paralyzes a caterpillar and lays its eggs inside of it. The caterpillar has an immune system which would kill the eggs, except that the wasp covers the eggs with a virus which suppresses the caterpillar’s immune system. This kind of virus is only found on the eggs of this wasp, and nowhere else. I have a hunch this happens more often than we think. This is one problem I am working on--whether or not this happens with other animal species as well.

It is very important that women, men and people of many different ethnicities be involved in research, because the kinds of scientific questions one asks have a lot to do with who they are and where they come from. It is possible that you could make a great discovery some day. People from different cultural backgrounds have much to contribute to scientific research.


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