Inventor of the Year: Deepak Shukla, College of Medicine 

Deepak Shukla received the 2023 Inventor of the Year award. (Photo: Jenny Fontaine/UIC)

Herpes simplex viruses are among the most common infections worldwide. They affect billions of people and cause painful oral and genital sores. But when the virus invades the eyes and brain, the effects can be much worse, leading to encephalitis or blindness. 

For his entire career, Deepak Shukla has studied why herpesvirus is so tenacious. Once it gains access to a person’s nerve cells, the virus stays there for decades, flaring up whenever the immune system weakens. Using microbiology and immunology, Shukla searches for the tricks the virus uses to become a permanent resident, then he flips them around to find new ways to stop its spread. 

“It’s a major puzzle that I’ve been trying to solve for the last 25 years,” said Shukla, the Marion H. Schenk Esq. Professor in Ophthalmology for Research of the Aging Eye and UIC professor of microbiology and immunology. “But I think we are getting close.” 

His translational research, funded by multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health, builds on basic scientific insights to develop promising new therapies to slow the spread of herpesvirus infection. In recent years, his group has demonstrated how two small-molecule inhibitors affect the virus’ ability to reactivate and infect additional nerves, limiting the severity of the disease.  

Another project used activated charcoal particles to enhance the activity of an approved antiviral drug — acyclovir — against herpesvirus. The delivery system allows for topical application directly on affected areas such as the eyes, avoiding the systemic side effects of taking the medication orally. 

For each of these strategies, Shukla has worked closely with UIC’s Office of Technology Management to apply for patents and seek partners for commercialization. That’s just one feature of the UIC community Shukla credits with supporting his innovative work. 

“Everybody’s very friendly and very collaborative, and we have mutual respect for each other,” Shukla said. “It’s an environment that allows you to grow academically, scientifically and socially.” 

As he continues to develop new therapies, he’s also exploring the link between herpesvirus and neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis. Ultimately, he hopes to find new approaches that clear the virus from nerves instead of simply containing it. 

“My lifelong quest is not solved yet,” Shukla said. “Until the virus is eliminated, it’s going to keep challenging me.”

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony.

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