Scientists combat auto-immunity

By Mairead Cremins

Scientists in Trinity made a groundbreaking discovery on 4 October. In a study funded by the Science Foundation of Ireland, the scientists uncovered a key way in which our cells detect invading viruses. Professor Andrew Bowie, an associate professor in Trinity’s School of Biochemistry and Immunology, said that the search for virus sensors in a compartment of the cell called the cytosol has been a source of great curiosity in recent times. “We have been working on this specific project for about three years” said Bowie.

The discovery involved chopping up segments of DNA from viruses and then casting them into immune cells called macrophages in the lab. Several of these proteins took the bait and bound to the viral DNA, allowing the scientists to reel them in and analyse them. To find out which proteins were the most important, they “tested a number of proteins on the list to see which ones were increased during a virus infection.”

It came as a surprise to Bowie and his colleagues to discover IFI16 was one of these proteins. “As we understand this process more, we can use that information to design therapies to boost the immune response to viruses. Alternatively, since IFI16 may sometimes get triggered by human rather that viral DNA, which can lead to autoimmune diseases such as lupus, blocking IFI16 with a drug may be a useful way to combat autoimmunity” he added.

There were several scientists involved in the research including other Trinity scientists Dr Leonie Unterholzner, Dr Sinead Keating and Marcin Baran. It also involved collaborations with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the University of Aarhus in Denmark and also with the National institutes of Health in Maryland.