As with so many of us, SARS-CoV-2 has had a profound impact on the work of Associate Professor Jill Carr.
For years she had been researching ways to reduce the devastating impacts of the mosquito-borne dengue and Zika viruses – work she has been forced to put on the back-burner.
“A whole lot of other research directions have really fallen by the wayside due to the pandemic,” she says.
But in Carr’s case, her previous research has come into its own to tackle the deadliest aspects of COVID-19 – in virology our work with one virus builds on what we know about others.
“My main focus on dengue has been sort of looking at the way the body’s own inflammatory response underlies the disease that develops,” she says. “And it is that inflammatory response, when it gets out of control, that is the cause of some of the most fatal aspects of COVID-19.”
Crucial to the inflammatory response are small proteins called cytokines – effectively messengers that tell cells how to respond to infection. They are essential in making our bodies respond to virus, bacteria or injury, but if they do not turn off when the danger has passed they can wreak havoc themselves — your own body essentially attacking itself from the inside.
In dengue when inflammation runs rampant, it attacks the cells lining the walls of our veins and arteries. Carr’s research is looking at the mechanics of that, with a view to finding ways to disrupt it.
In COVID-19 the lungs are the frontline.
“In dengue, we were looking at inflammatory cytokines, particularly two specific ones which have proved to be really important in the lungs in COVID-19 patients as well,” she says.
“We often don't have to reinvent the wheel. We can take something that we've learned from another situation and then apply it and maybe amend some of those models.”
While Carr is working at the cutting edge of our understanding of viruses, her inspiration has much more ancient roots.
Her mother and grandfather are Nukunu people from near Port Augusta and inculcated a sense of traditional thinking in Carr, in which land, water, animals and plants are in balance.
“It is the same approach I have to biology – to understand the balance in the host cell and dysfunction induced by viruses,” she says.
It has driven a career-long fascination with the many “clever” ways viruses have of replicating and subverting our bodies defences.
She began in plant virology but turned to studying HIV during the 1990s, then on to the dengue and, in 2016, Zika.
Not strictly living organisms, viruses cannot reproduce without a living host – sometimes us – where they hijack cells to replicate. And different viruses often use the same strategies to both invade their hosts and to constantly change slightly to improve the way they do that, as we have seen with the shifting patterns of SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Drawing on the particular strengths of Flinders’ ophthalmology team, before the pandemic Carr was focusing on how dengue might be carried in the eye.
As with dengue and COVID-19, this can then set off a hyper-inflammatory response that can damage the eye and affect the site for six months after the infection has been cleared.
“It would be interesting to see if that's something associated potentially with long COVID,” says Carr.
While the pandemic has set off fears that viruses are mutating and developing more frequently, Carr believes the truth is more complex.
“I think our mechanisms for monitoring viruses are a lot better. But for SARS-CoV-2, I think it just looks worse because we've got so much replication going on and, of course, we’re monitoring so much of that, that we see all these different aspects.
“Then of course, the interaction between humans and animals is becoming more prevalent and so much part of, I guess, everyday lives that we see a lot more of these zoonotic events than we've seen in the past.”
If that’s the bad news, then Carr also has a more optimistic message. The more we chase down ways to cope with viruses, the better we become at it.
“There's no way we could have done all the rapid diagnosis that we’ve had through thousands and thousands of tests, without the PCR-based testing that, again, really came to the fore, for the sensitivity and high throughput with HIV.
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