We associate Covid-19 with lung problems, but you recently got funding from Science Foundation Ireland to look at it further afield in the body, can you explain?
In the early days of Covid-19 there was a lot of attention on the lungs, because this is often the immediate site of damage in the body. But we now know that Covid-19 can damage blood vessels and lead to clots in other parts of the body too, such as the brain and in the retina at the back of the eye.
We have a poor idea of how this happens, so in this project we are looking at how the Covid-19 virus affects the cells of those blood vessels, to better understand the damage caused by Covid-19 and look for ways to lessen it.
How are you looking at that?
We are taking samples of tissues from different parts of the body – the lung, the retina – and isolating the blood vessels and their component cells in the lab. Then our colleagues in Queen’s University Belfast will infect those cells with SARS-CoV-2 in the lab, and we can look how gene expression changes in those cells, and look at functional aspects, such as whether the cells become stickier and more inflamed.
You are from Stirling in Scotland, what brought you to Ireland?
I studied molecular biology in Aberdeen and I met my wife there, who is Irish. She is a scientist too, on the diagnostics side. Then while I was carrying out research in London on the biochemistry of blood clots, the opportunity came up to move to Trinity College Dublin and work with my colleague Prof James O'Donnell. Later we set up the Irish Centre for Vascular Biology together. My wife had been keen to move back to Ireland, so it all worked out well.
What do people perhaps not realise about blood vessels?
Maybe that blood vessels in different parts of the body can behave quite differently to each other. Also how much blood vessels are affected by so many types of disease, particularly when the immune system is activated.
My group at RCSI is interested in how chronic inflammatory conditions such as cancer, sickle-cell disease or inflammatory bowel disease can increase the risk of thrombosis or developing a clot. And now Covid-19, of course. Our research sits at that intersection between inflammation – where the immune system is activated – and altered coagulation – where the blood doesn't clot in a way that keeps us healthy.
And how do you step away from work?
I think that keeping a balance between work and life outside work is a challenge, but we have two young kids now, and that means keeping active with them. These days we have a lot of family football matches in the back garden, trying to keep ourselves healthy and entertained during lockdown.