Prof. Stern-Ginossar says that her laboratory recently tested part of the mechanism of action of the new coronavirus. "We wanted to understand how the virus takes over the cell," she explains. "We knew that one of the things that viruses depend on the most is the ribosome—the intracellular 'machine' that translates genetic information in the form of RNA into proteins. Viruses do not have ribosomes; they are simply receptacles for stored genetic information, and the first thing they need is to take over our ribosomes that will turn their genetic information into proteins. To do this, they need to develop a mechanism that will ensure that when they enter the cell, the ribosome will actually translate their RNA and not the cell’s native RNA.
"We tried to understand how the coronavirus does this," she says, "and we found that it uses several different mechanisms. For example, the first thing it produces inside the cell is a scissor-like protein that knows how to cut and break down all the RNA that the cell has, but does not harm its own RNA." She says that this discovery may one day become a drug target to neutralize viral activity, but stresses that specific medical questions are very far from the research in her laboratory. "We aim to do basic science to understand processes, not research aimed at medicine. Of course our ambition is that if we look at things and discover new mechanisms, someone will be able to develop technology that can use them."
Prof. Stern-Ginossar says that she came into academia and her field of research out of an interest in nature. "As a child, I really enjoyed nature walks," she says. "This may have been the reason I started studying for a bachelor's degree in biology, but I was thinking more about the fields of ecology and the environment," she adds, "then I discovered the existence of this whole molecular world, and it amazed me." She went on to pursue a master's degree (“that was when I really fell in love with the field”, she says) and a doctorate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, on “Modulation of NK cells cytotoxic activity”. I then went to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco.”
When asked how she explains scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, Prof. Stern-Ginossar replies that ideas come to her quite randomly—"when I read something, when I walk down the street or just in my free time," she expands, "but another important key is gatherings and interactions with people." “They grant you a certain peacefulness, freedom from the day-to-day tasks, a chance to hang out with other researchers and think creatively.” In that sense, she says, “the corona pandemic has certainly changed things and those meetings are very much missing.”
"Academic awards provide a boost and motivation," she says, adding that she was very happy when she was informed that she had been chosen as the Blavatnik Awards Laureate. "The process of research is full of doubts. You are never sure that you are doing something right until it succeeds, but upon receiving acknowledgement like this you feel you're on the right track, especially when it comes to such a prestigious science award. This is an important recognition, both for me and for my entire laboratory."
Interviewed by Assaf Uni