Trinity researchers breathe new life into flu treatment

31 Aug 2023

Image: © Subbotina Anna/

The discovery of virus-fighting lung cell proteins by a team of Trinity researchers could lead to improved treatments for flu and other viruses.

Researchers from Trinity College Dublin, along with international colleagues, have discovered that certain lung cells play a key role in our ability to fight influenza and other viruses, with potential positive implications for treating people infected by these viruses.

In a study recently published in iScience, the team highlighted their finding that respiratory epithelial cells react in a surprising way to the presence of influenza and other viruses.

The viruses primarily target these respiratory epithelial cells to replicate, causing cell damage and death. It was believed these cells were passive in the face of attack. However, the researchers discovered that the cells drive the antiviral immune response. The team has now developed an understanding of the mechanism underpinning that response.

Viral RNA and influenza viruses stimulate a reaction whereby two proteins called gasdermin D and gasdermin E form membrane pores in the epithelial cells.

These pores instigate the release of a special agent called cytokines which rouses the immune system and kills cells to prevent the virus from spreading.

To assess the importance of this discovery, the team suppressed the formation of the gasdermin pores and noted the increased replication of influenza virus as a result. This underlines the importance of these gasdermins in the antiviral response.

According to the World Health Organization, the influenza virus causes severe illness in about 3m to 5m people and leads to between 290,000 and 650,000 deaths every year. Epidemics can result in high levels of work and school absenteeism and productivity losses, and hospitals can become overwhelmed during peak illness periods.

PhD researcher Coralie Guy led the research. She is based at the Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute as part of Prof Andrew Bowie’s research team.

“We realised that very little was known about the initial response to viruses in those early moments when our lungs first encounter a virus,” Bowie said.

“Through Coralie Guy’s work, we were able to make some important discoveries that highlight previously unknown aspects of the immune response to influenza.”

The research was funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Innovating Training Networks programme and by Science Foundation Ireland. According to Bowie, the formation of an international network of experts in immunology and virology for this research allowed the team to “ask some fundamental questions about how our bodies respond to RNA viruses such as influenza and SARS-CoV-2”.

The team will now build on this discovery to examine how it applies to other viral lung infections, such as SARS-CoV-2 and RSV.

A couple of weeks ago, researchers from Trinity published a study which suggested a certain protein in the immune system is able to stop the spread of ovarian cancer cells.

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Rebecca Graham is production editor at Silicon Republic