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Every flu-like bug already has the keys to its next home.

Relying on proteins that envelope its outer membrane, the virus can enter an unprotected cell without much effort. But how do these protein keys work? That’s a question Robert Lamb, molecular biosciences and microbiology-immunology, has been exploring for decades with influenza and paramyxoviruses — the viruses responsible for mumps, measles, and other serious diseases.

“If we can figure out how fusion proteins work, we can design a small molecule to stop viruses from infecting host cells in the first...