Albert Senft, PhD

Biomedical Research Grant: How Does RSV Circumvent the Immune System?

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common illness of childhood, which sometimes turns serious and causes an inflammation of the airways called bronchiolitis. But RSV can also cause serious illness in the elderly, particularly adults with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other underlying illnesses. "People with COPD get many infections that worsen patients' breathing, and RSV is one of those infections," says Albert Senft, PhD. "But how RSV persists in exacerbating COPD is not well understood."

With a Biomedical Research Grant from the American Lung Association, Dr. Senft is studying what RSV does to change the function of cells in the immune system called macrophages, which are specialized white blood cells that are critical for clearing inhaled particles and dying cells from the lung.

He is focusing on a protein called gamma interferon, which makes a chemical signal that activates macrophages and gives them instructions. "After RSV infection, macrophages don't respond to interferon gamma properly," Dr. Senft says. "We are trying to see why that is." He notes that influenza is another virus that also can lead to dangerous bacterial infections. But his lab has found that the influenza virus and the RSV virus work in different ways to cause secondary infections.

He hopes that the research will one day help prevent dangerous bacterial infections that result after RSV infection. "After a viral infection, there is a window of time when you are susceptible to other pathogens. If we can understand what happens to macrophages in RSV infection, and what makes them not do their job well, we might one day be able to diagnose RSV infection and then give therapy to prevent secondary infections," he says. The American Lung Association grant has provided Dr. Senft with funding to get his lab started. He says, "The grant is providing preliminary data that I can use to write larger National Institutes of Health grants."