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  • Alex Cloherty


Today on Microbial Mondays, I want to tell you a story - a story that I think I will also tell at the international FameLab competition that I'll be heading to this fall. Comments and critiques are highly welcome! So, without further ado...

Almost 4 years ago, at my first week at work in Amsterdam, where I'm doing my PhD, I was late for the departmental drinks. As a newly minted employee, I was trying to work extra hard to prove my worth, and was the last one in the office. And that was the fateful moment where there was a knock on my window.

"Huid!" a smiling man waving two big, white, buckets shouted through the glass. Now, I'm Canadian, and at that point my Dutch was good enough to know that "Huid" meant "skin" - but also bad enough to assume that I must have misunderstood. In any case, I went out to meet him, signed for the buckets, and sent a picture of them to my boss, asking what it was and what I should do with it. She answered, "Ah great, thanks Alex, you can store the skin in the cold room!"

… Human skin. Gross… But also AMAZING!

You see, I study viruses. And viruses are complicated on their own, but they're even more complicated, if you also consider, well, how complicated we are. To fully understand this, I want you to envision a chess set. Queen's Gambit style. Here, I'll help [pull out a chess board].

So in this scenario, the virus is playing white, because it is making the first move - crossing the boundary into your body. But let's take a look at the black army: your immune system.

We often think of our immune systems as singular - but it's actually composed of a lot of different moving pieces, each with their own unique role to play. You have the pawns - cells like dendritic cells, that live at the perimeter of your body, like on the skin, keeping an eye out for invaders. They seem fairly benign at first - but like pawns, which can trade out for a queen upon crossing the board, they have a special trick. If dendritic cells notice a virus entering the playing field, they can alert the other cells of the immune system that there's a battle at hand - cells like T cells that can target and destroy hideouts where the virus is growing, or B cells, that make antibodies that spread out and immobilize the virus. That is by no means a comprehensive overview of all the immune cells we have - but you get the idea. They're all different, and they all have a role to play in the battle of the host and the hijacker.

But why am I telling you all this? Well, it all comes back to the skin. Oftentimes, when scientists study viruses, they study how viruses interact with one immune cell type at a time. Just the pawns, or just the queens, or just the bishops. Of course this is important information to know, but it doesn't give you the same insight as if you look at the whole chessboard. And that's how what we do is different. In our lab, we study the whole chessboard. We use complex systems, like skin, or even mini-organs that we grow in the lab, to see how viruses plan their attacks when they are faced with a whole army, versus just a group of knights. This not only allows us to better understand how real-life infections, in real living humans happen, but it also helps us find better treatments for viruses. Using these systems, we've been able to identify brand-new ways to treat viruses like HIV, Dengue virus, and even the all-too-familiar SARS-CoV-2. So, in other words, that skin isn't just a weird Friday afternoon delivery to a lab. In the end, it's our way to say to the virus, "Checkmate".

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