Vici grant to prevent severe respiratory infections with help from gut bacteria

23 February 2023
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Hermelijn Smits, professor of Immune Modulation by Host-Commensal Interactions at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC), receives a 1.5 million euros Vici grant from science funder NWO. With this grant, she aims to use substances produced by bacteria and other commensals in the intestines to boost the immune system in the nose. Smits hopes to prevent severe respiratory infections this way.

Serious respiratory infections caused by viruses are common in people with a weak(er) immune system, such as small children, elderly and lung patients. In these groups, infection can lead to hospitalisation or even death. Treatment usually focuses on targeting invading pathogens, but this is not always effective. Smits therefore focuses not on the viruses, but on strengthening the patient's own local immune system in the nose.

Strengthening the immune system

Gut bacteria have a great influence on our immune system. They, for example, produce bioactive molecules that promote gut health and the protective activity of immune cells. "I propose to administer these bioactive compounds, which have been shown to be safe for humans, directly into the nose to strengthen the immune system in this area. This is important because a proper immune system response in the nose prevents pathogens from spreading to the lower respiratory tract and lungs," Smits explains.

She will investigate the effects of these bioactive substances on immune cells and whether they reduce rhinovirus infections, in organoids of the nose, which are 3D miniature organs. Smits: "The bioactive substances that come out best from our experiments, we intend to administer to healthy volunteers in a proof-of-concept study to investigate whether they also protect against a controlled rhinovirus infection."

Smits is very happy with this grant: "It is an absolute milestone and crucial to be able to start this research." If successful, Smits says this approach will open up a new therapeutic avenue for high-risk groups of severe respiratory infections.

NWO Talent Programme

The Vici funding, together with the Veni and Vidi grants, is part of the NWO Talent Programme. Vici is aimed at senior researchers who have demonstrated their ability to successfully develop their own innovative line of research.