The Power Group

Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in infants worldwide and also causes considerable morbidity and mortality in the elderly and immunecompromised. Re-infections are common throughout life. Despite more than 50 years of research there are no vaccines or specific therapeutics against RSV. Importantly, the mechanisms by which RSV causes disease in humans remain poorly understood.

In close collaboration with Prof. Mike Shields, the Power group has developed models of RSV infection based on well-differentiated primary paediatric airway epithelial cell cultures (WD-PAEC), the primary targets of RSV infection in vivo. These cultures are derived from both bronchial and nasal brushes of airway epithelium in ethically approved protocols. Our RSV/WD-PAEC model derived from bronchial epithelium demonstrated remarkable similarities to hallmarks of RSV infection in infant lungs, both at the cellular and molecular levels. This research indicated that our model provides an authentic surrogate for RSV infection of lower airway epithelium in vivo. Similarly, our RSV/WD-PAEC model derived from nasal epithelium provided the means to comprehensively study RSV infection in authentic paediatric upper respiratory tract epithelium tissue. Our exploitation of these models has provided several novel insights into the consequences of RSV infection of paediatric airway epithelial cells that are the basis of ongoing research.

BT2a syncytium-1 © Queen's University Belfast

We are optimistic that these models will provide insights into RSV pathogenesis in humans that ultimately lead to successful RSV vaccines or therapeutics. Be extension, we suspect that they will also provide the basis for authentic pre-clinical models to test novel anti-RSV therapeutics.

SeV infection.jpg © Queen's University Belfast

Although our models are based on RSV infections, these cultures will be undoubtedly adaptable to studying the molecular pathogenesis of other important respiratory viruses, such as influenza virus and human parainfluenza viruses. Indeed, by way of comparison with RSV, we have extensively characterised the consequences of WD-PAEC infection with Sendai virus, a murine parainfluenza virus type 1 (mPIV1) that is considered non-pathogenic in humans. Sendai virus is of interest to us and others as a live attenuated viral vaccine vector for RSV antigens. As such, studying its interaction with WD-PAECs provided novel insights into the cytopathogenesis of Sendai virus in paediatric airway epithelial cells.