Virginia Riddle Pearson has been working to save elephants from extinction for more than half a century. Her current research focuses on the critical question of why the elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHVs), which have co-evolved with elephants for more than sixty million years, are sometimes lethal in juvenile elephants particularly. She has searched for the origins of this devastating disease in Kenya, Botswana, South Africa, Gabon, Borneo and throughout America by collecting saliva, blood, and tissues from approximately two hundred and fifty elephants, including EEHV-infected skin nodules from living wild elephants exhibiting no clinical signs of disease. By polymerase chair reaction (PCR) and Sanger sequencing of the DNA from these samples, she has identified elephant herpesviruses, identifying multiple new species and subspecies of EEHVs and elephant gamma herpesviruses (EGHVs,) in almost all the elephants most of which showed no overt disease pathology. Her research shows that the now-known twenty plus EEHVs and EGHVs are endogenous viruses of the three extant species of the Order Proboscidea: Loxodonta africana, the African savannah elephant; Loxodonta cyclotis, the African forest elephant; and Elephas maximus, the Asian elephant. The question remains: what causes these endogenous viruses to become pathogenic usually leading quickly to death of the elephant, and can the severe inflammatory response be prevented by vaccines and therapeutics?
She is a Visiting Scientist at Fox Chase Cancer Institute, Philadelphia, and works closely with the Molecular Virology Group at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, to sequence the genomes of the elephant herpesviruses and to replicate the elephant herpesviruses viruses in vitro for potential vaccine development. She has established numerous primary endothelial and epithelial cell lines from both African and Asian elephant umbilical cords and amniotic sacs for co-culture of EEHV-positive elephant tissues. Virginia’s recent authored publication describes her creation of a novel recombinant plasmid, encoding viral transforming proteins specific to elephants, that can be used to create immortalized elephant cell lines. She derived this plasmid from an isolate of another elephant virus, African Elephant Polyomavirus (AelPyV-1), that she identified also in a skin nodule biopsy that she had collected from a wild Botswanan elephant for her EEHVs research. This plasmid, pAelPyV-1-Tag, has the potential to facilitate durable transformation of primary elephant cells that will be a critical resource for long-study of the elephant-specific herpesviruses in vitro for potential EEHVs vaccine development, as well as investigation of intrinsic cellular response to DNA damage in elephants that have surprisingly little incidence of cancer as compared to humans, potentially relevant for the development of effective cancer therapeutics for humans. She was formerly a Guest Researcher in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, New Jersey, where she began her elephant herpesviruses research in 2006. She is an Honorary Research Associate in Vertebrate Zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the oldest scientific institution of its kind in North America, and an Emeritus Trustee of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia, the oldest zoo in America. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Economics at Wellesley College, MA USA.