Hui Zhi, Ph.D.

Can we harness the hidden powers of our own tissue-resident immune cells against viral infections?

The COVID-19 pandemic underlines the urgent need to understand how our immune system protects us and find general treatments against viral infection. While antibodies and killer T cells circulating in the bloodstream have drawn the most attention for their powerful antiviral effect, there is an often overlooked but equally important part of the immune system: tissue-resident immune cells. Among them are so-called type 1 innate lymphoid cells (ILC1), which are among the first responders when a viral infection is trying to gain a foothold in the body. Due to the critical role of ILC1s, it is imperative to understand how ILC1s execute its protective function against viral infection.

In the Benedict laboratory, we have recently discovered that ILC1s can act like killer T cells, in that they can identify and destroy virus-infected cells. I want to identify and characterize the potent “weapons” ILC1s possess in their arsenal to better harness the hidden powers of ILC1s against viral infections. Most likely, ILC1s don’t use their full complement of weapons unless they encounter stressed cells, therefore I will use state of the art ‘omics’ techniques to thoroughly analyze the genes and proteins produced by ILC1 during virus infections, and identify the most powerful proteins ILC1s utilize to combat virus.

The identification of the protective function of ILC1s will deepen our understanding of how tissue-resident cells respond to emergencies and could help us better harness them for treating infectious diseases like COVID-19. Interestingly, ILCs also run constant immunosurveillance to spot and eradicate malignant cells before they can grow into a tumor. Thus a better understanding of the weapons ILC1s could also help inform new therapeutic strategies for cancers.

SPARKing Impact: These findings will provide new insight into how ILC1s can be harnessed for treating viral infections like COVID-19, and could also help address another major health concern by opening the door to new strategies for fighting cancer.