Ye Olde Autophagy: How to declutter your viruses
Updated: May 22
I know it's not a Monday, but this one was a real brain-bender for me. And, I know I have some very sharp readers here, so I'm reaching out for your critique if you'd like to give it!
Today, I have some short iambic pentameter (or, as best I could... that was the brain-bending part) verse on autophagy, and my doctoral research. I have written this because I'm entering a science communication competition, in which PhD students have to pitch the topic of their research within 3 minutes. It's also the reason for which I distilled my doctoral research into 100 words a few weeks ago on Microbial Mondays. Why iambic pentameter? Because I was trying to think of the most engaging ways to communicate, and something about that rhythm just gets to me. And, it made it a lot more fun to go over and over the same one-page text again in preparation.
On this one, comments are very very welcome! If you have any suggestions of any kind - on the language, the rhythm, the scientific explanation, anything - I'd love to hear them. It'll help me to prep for the competition!
And without further ado (about nothing - heheh, get it?), here is my Shakespeare-inspired pitch:
Autophagy: Decluttering viruses
You know about Marie Kondo, correct?
The Japanese decluttering guru who
says, get rid of all that does not spark joy?
Well so does every single cell in you.
Just like your home, cells can accumulate
unwanted stuff. But excess in cells
be a life-or-death scenario.
The good news is, to deal with cellular
clutter, an elegant mechanism
for cellular decluttering that's called
autophagy has evolved. My focus
is understanding how this system works
in order to fine-tune autophagy
during infections with viruses like
HIV. Simply said, I want to help
your cells declutter HIV. But why?
Although we often think of HIV
as a pandemic of the past, it's still
a major issue today. Every day,
5000 people are infected. Plus,
we lack a cure for it - it's a life-time-
sentence, and existing treatments aren't always
available or effective for all.
So, adding extra weapons to our anti-HIV armoury is surely
socially and scientifically vital… but how does this cellular declutt-
ering work? Autophagy, or "self-eating" from Greek, begins with the formation
of an envelope, that can enclose worn-
out, non-joy-sparking matter within cells.
The envelope will then acidify
to digest everything inside - and so,
the joyless stuff is tossed. But then - Not only old, unwanted stuff but also dan-
gerous microbial bugs, invaders that have broken in, can be targeted
for decluttering. And in fact, we found
that human cells can declutter HIV
this way! And that is super cool! But, not
all human cells can accomplish this feat.
Else, this virus wouldn't be such a mas-
sive problem for us humans - but the fact
that some cells can accomplish it suggests
that optimizing our autophagy
could help to prevent and treat HIV.
And that is what my research is about.
Because autophagy is key throughout
the immune system, drugs that tweak it do
exist to treat non-infectious disease
like transplants, cancer, epilepsy. Now,
we asked, can we repurpose these auto-
phagy drugs to treat infectious disease?
To test this, I developed a model
that uses leftover human tissue
from cosmetic surgeries, to allow
me to see if treatment with autophagy
enhancing drugs could boost decluttering
of HIV. To make a long story short,
I found that yes, autophagy target-
ing drugs were able to not only block
HIV infection but also to
hit the brakes after HIV got in.
This means, there's potential to declutter
not only incoming virus, to stop
infection, but also for casting off
HIV after it's already in-
side your cells, which is a key goal for treat-
ment of people living with HIV.
What's extra cool about my research is,
we show that decluttering virus via autophagy is a relevant
strategy for combating HIV, and we made a brand-new human tissue
model for screening antiviral drugs
that will pave the way to find new treatments
for other viruses in the future.
And that's precisely what we're on to next.
Stay tuned for upcoming research from us
on how to declutter your viruses!
I hope you enjoyed this, and I am looking forward to hearing any comments or critiques you have, wonderful readers!
Have a great week, and Microbial Mondays will be back again in a few days with the answer to a question from Sarah in response to this post from a few weeks back, about how genetic parasites can contribute to human cognition. "See" you then!
The research I discuss in this post is published here: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33637808/
And the iambic pentameter was inspired by not only my affinity for Shakespeare but also by the poet and Youtuber Hannah Louise Poston: http://www.hannahlouiseposton.com/