How to tackle a virus? Learn from the arms race
Research Lives: Prof Andrew Bowie, School of Biochemistry and Immunology, TCD
Andrew Bowie, professor in immunology, Trinity College Dublin: “We put a virus or parts of a virus into cells in the lab as ‘bait’ and we see what happens”
You spend a lot of time thinking about viruses. Why?
“Viruses and humans have co-existed for a long time, and it’s a bit like an arms race: our immune systems develop ways to stop viruses establishing an infection, then over time viruses evolve ways around that. We want to learn from that arms race – how do our cells recognise there is a virus there and how do viruses try to subvert our immune responses?”
How do you figure that out?
“We try to look at the human innate immune system – a frontline defence in our bodies – from the point of view of a virus. So we put a virus or parts of a virus into cells in the lab as ‘bait’ and we see what happens.”
What have you caught with this bait?
“When we put bit of a poxvirus into cells we discovered a DNA sensor called IFI16 that was activated. Other people have gone on to show that the same DNA sensor is involved in recognising and responding to other viruses too, such as herpes viruses and HIV, so it seems to be an important element of our immune response.”
What are you working on now?
“We are looking at poxviruses that can suppress our immune systems, to see how they do that, and also how our cells die in response to viruses and pathogens.”
And how will knowing all this help us improve human health?
“If we know the tricks that viruses use to manipulate and control pathways in our immune systems, then we can figure out ways to thwart them if we want to stop an infection, or mimic them if we want to suppress the immune system, say in the case of an autoimmune or inflammatory disease.”
What’s most challenging about research?
“I think it’s trying to keep up with the developments happening in our field of innate immunity. It’s advancing so rapidly. It’s also hard to get the head space to focus on the important rather than the urgent. I try to have a long-term vision and make sure my time is spent fulfilling that rather than getting bogged down in tasks.”
So what is your long-term vision?
“To have a deeper understanding of how innate immunity – that frontline defence of immune cells – controls inflammation.”
What do you like to do when you take a break from research?
“As a family we try to get away to be beside the sea when we can; that’s really therapeutic. I also love reading, particularly novels, sports biographies (I’ve just finished Paul O’Connell’s biography), philosophy and theology.”
Philosophy and theology?
“Yes, one of my passions is to think about the big questions in life, like whether the universe came from matter or mind. I’ve gone to some interesting Walton lectures over the years in Trinity about science and theism.”
What would you like to see happening in science in Ireland in the coming years?
“I think that in Ireland we need to support fundamental research more, because without that engine it is more difficult to do the applied science that leads more directly to benefits for Ireland and for humankind in general, particularly in biology, which can take a long time to have an applied impact.”
Prof Andrew Bowie is the 2017 recipient of the Irish Society for Immunology Public Lecture Award and will speak about Viruses and Us: Playing Host to the Enemy this evening (April 27th) at 7pm at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, Pearse Street, Dublin 2. Admission is free. www.irishimmunology.ie