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  • Alex Cloherty

Ye Olde Autophagy: How to declutter your viruses

Updated: May 22, 2021

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!

~ Alex

Some footnotes

The research I discuss in this post is published here:

And the iambic pentameter was inspired by not only my affinity for Shakespeare but also by the poet and Youtuber Hannah Louise Poston:

49 views2 comments


Jun 04, 2021

And from one pitch to the next one, you can even prepare another one. CONGRATS, well deserved! After you've "decluttered" Marie Kondo from this pitch, I'm pretty curious what else you will "declutter" and if you manage to do it without getting new junk in ;-) .

One thing for sure, since you're quite good in unravelling these processes on the level of viruses, you'll probably manage to handle your pitch as well.

Alex Cloherty
Alex Cloherty
Jun 04, 2021
Replying to

Thank you for your kind words! :)

Can't get enough? I can fix that.
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