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Laura Riva

Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute

Laura Riva’s earliest interest in microbiology stems from a French animated series called Il était une fois… la vie. Every episode of the show featured a different organ or body system, but the microbe episodes were her all-time favorites as a kid.

“I realized that I was fascinated by what’s small and microscopic,” she said, which led to her pursuing a career in virology.

Riva spent an earlier part of her career studying the molecular biology of the hepatitis C virus. But at some point, Riva found herself pondering about the direct impact of her research. 

“I had the feeling that I was doing science, because I was passionate about it, but I wasn’t able to see the real application of what I was doing directly on patients,” she said.

Riva pivoted to drug discovery in 2017 and is now a postdoc at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in California, where she has studied antiviral drugs that could work against Zika, West Nile, and other viral infections. But as soon as news of a coronavirus outbreak began to make headlines, Riva pivoted again. 

“Given my background and skill set, I realized that I had a responsibility to work toward helping people,” she said. “I had to do it, and I wanted to do it.”

In collaboration with scientists at the University of Hong Kong, who had access to the SARS-CoV-2 virus in February 2020, Riva virtually led an extensive drug screen. This meant tapping into one of the world’s largest drug libraries to find compounds that might be able to combat the virus. Riva and her colleagues identified 21 existing drugs that were able to stop the replication of SARS-CoV-2 virus in monkey cells. That team is currently testing the effectiveness of some of these drugs in small animal models and human lung tissue samples.

In September 2020, Riva started a new role at the California Institute for Biomedical Research, where she’s now scanning additional drug candidates that could work against Covid-19.

“Given my background and skill set, I realized that I had a responsibility to work toward helping people.”

“I’m finally being able to apply what I’ve done for many years and seeing that it can be really useful,” she said. “Even though I’ve been sleep-deprived and not taken even half a day off in the last nine months, that’s what’s keeping me going.”

—  Priyanka Runwal