What happens when a virus meets a cell in our bodies? If the cell can ‘sense’ the virus, it tries to clear it away - but the virus may have ways to hide. Professor Andrew Bowie at Trinity College Dublin researches this important interplay between viruses and cells, particularly in the lungs.

“The overall research question in our lab is how cells in our innate immune system detect pathogens such as viruses in order to protect us from them,” says Professor Bowie, who is Professor of Innate Immunology at Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute.

Professor Andrew Bowie, Trinity College Dublin
“This kind of information is highly relevant to new viruses that emerge, because we can look at what we know happens with other viruses and that helps us to understand how the new virus is attacking the body.”

With SFI funding, Professor Bowie has examined what happens in human cells when they ‘see’ many different types of pathogens, and he recently started to look at RNA viruses, the group to which the COVID-19 virus SARS-CoV-2 belongs.

“A lot of RNA viruses cause problems in the lungs,” he explains. “So we have been looking at how lung cells growing in the lab react to being exposed to viruses such as RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and influenza A virus, a type of flu. We have been researching how those RNA viruses cause the immune system to respond at a molecular level in the lung.”

To carry out this research, Professor Bowie and Trinity colleagues Professor Luke O’Neill and Professor Cliona O’Farrelly are part of a European project called INITIATE. “My lab’s in that project is to do basic research where we grow a type of lung cell called epithelial cells in the lab and challenge them with these viruses, then we measure the response,” explains Professor Bowie.

“And now, because we have set up this system, we plan to look at what happens when the COVID-19 virus ‘meets’ these lung cells in the lab, we want to look at exactly how the cells are responding to it.”

Understanding the responses are important in order to develop ways to help patients, says Professor Bowie. “We can see that some patients with COVID-19 get seriously ill and some don’t, and we want to understand why some people seem to be able to get rid of the virus and in others it leads to an immune response that itself can cause damage to the lungs. By doing the basic research in the lab, we will gather more information about the mechanisms of how viruses and lung cells interact, and that in turn will help to inform ways to improve treatments.”