Severe viral infection overwhelms immune cells

Researchers from the School have identified mechanisms leading to functional deterioration of  immune system in response to severe viral infections, such as HIV or COVID-19.

The team from the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the Peter Doherty Institute of Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), including Dr Daniel Utzschneider and Professor Axel Kallies has focused on when and how T cells lose their function and become ‘exhausted’.

It was previously thought that during severe infections, T cells lost their function slowly and over long periods of time. The new research published recently in Nature Immunology, however, shows that T cells can be impaired within just a few days.

“This is an exciting finding, particularly in the context of COVID-19 as one of the big questions is why some people get severely sick, while others experience mild disease,” Dr Utzschneider said.

T cells are at the heart of immunotherapy for cancer. Therefore, understanding how T cell function is impaired is central to improving these therapeutic approaches and applying them to other diseases, such as viral infections.

“These findings are extremely exciting. Our data show that T cells could be manipulated during early stages of severe viral infection to improve their activity,” Professor Kallies said.

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Original article published by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity on 25 August 2020.