One of the big functions of our immune system is to quickly identify and get rid of things in our body that could make us sick, such as a virus. But how does our immune system ‘remember’ what a particular virus looks like, so that it knows to react quickly to a second encounter?
One way is for the body to develop immunity is to make antibodies against that particular virus, but the immune system also has cells that help to control the infection and these immune cells can develop long-term memory to prevent re-infection and Professor Kingston Mills is using his expertise on these memory cells to research the potential for vaccine-induced immunity to COVID-19.
Professor Mills, who is Professor of Experimental Immunology at Trinity, co-leads the Trinity COVID-19 Immunology Project supported by AIB and is working with colleagues on in-house development of antibody tests for COVID-19.
“We want to develop high-throughput systems here in Ireland that can be used to see who has been exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19,” he says. “And because we are making them in Ireland, and they are not commercial systems, this will get around potential problems with supply.”
Professor Mills’s research lab at Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute is also interested in the other side of the immunity house – how cells of the immune system develop a memory of an infection and work to stop that infection from happening again.
“We know from our work on of other infectious agents that immune cells called T-cells can develop a memory of an infection and then go and take up residence in a tissue, often the lung, where they are there onsite to recognise this infectious agent if it turns up again,” explains Professor Mills.
“In our lab, we have been able to show that these ‘resident’ T cells are important for maintaining long-term immunity to the bacteria that cause whooping cough.”
Professor Mills is now taking the learnings from the whooping cough immune response and applying them to COVID-19. “We are looking at ways to encourage cellular immunity, which I think will be important as well as antibodies for having a long-term memory in the body of the virus that causes COVID-19,” he says. “That will make vaccination more effective in the long term.”