Vici grant for the prevention of severe respiratory infections

Hermelijn Smits, professor of Immunomodulation through Host-Commensal Interactions at LUMC, receives a Vici grant of 1.5 million euros. With this grant, she wants to use substances produced in the intestines to strengthen the immune system. She hopes this will prevent respiratory infections.

Severe respiratory infections caused by viruses often occur in people with a weak(ened) immune system, such as small children, the elderly and lung patients. In these groups, an infection can lead to hospitalisation or even death. Treatment is usually aimed at targeting invading pathogens, but that is not always effective. Therefore, Hermelijn Smits does not focus on the viruses, but rather on strengthening the patient’s own local immune system in the nose. To this end, she uses substances produced by bacteria and other commensals in the intestines.

Strengthening the immune system

Gut bacteria have a major influence on our immune system. Among other things, they produce bioactive molecules that promote gut health and the protective activity of immune cells. 'I propose to administer these bioactive substances, which have been proven safe for humans, directly into the nose to strengthen the immune system at this site. This is important because a proper immune system response in the nose prevents pathogens from spreading to the lower respiratory tract and lungs', explains Smits.

Among other things, she will use organoids of the nose – which are 3D mini-organs – to study the effects of these bioactive substances on immune cells and whether they reduce rhinovirus infections. Smits: 'We then want to administer the bioactive substance that showed to be most effective in our experiments to healthy volunteers in a proof-of-concept study to investigate whether they also protect against a controlled rhinovirus infection.'

Smits is very pleased with this grant: 'It is an absolute milestone and crucial to be able to start this research.' If this approach proves successful, Smits says it 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.