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24 Sep 2020

Meet the team: Jennifer Habel investigates SARS-CoV-2 immunity

University of Melbourne Jennifer Habel, PhD Candidate with the Kedzierska Laboratory Group at the Doherty Institute

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Doherty Institute?

Hello! I’m Jennifer, a member of the Kedzierska Lab. I am currently in the first year of my PhD. Last year I completed my Honours at the Doherty Institute as well.

What initially attracted you to the field of science and immunity?

After high school, I began training to become a nurse - that’s when my curiosity surrounding physiology and biology started. I ditched studying nursing and instead did a Bachelor of Biomedical Science to get to the bottom of how things work at a molecular level, during which I learned and was fascinated by immunology, particularly T cells!

What are you currently working on?

I am currently working on characterising the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses in pregnant women. 

The immune system inherently wants to attack what is foreign (e.g. bacteria, viruses, etc.). This is typically beneficial to us as it prevents and resolves infections, however, in the eyes of the immune system, the foetus of a pregnant woman is also considered foreign. In order to keep the pregnancy viable, the immune system is in a suppressed state during gestation. This can have detrimental effects if the mother becomes infected with, for example, influenza or SARS-CoV-2 as their immune response will be lesser than that of a non-pregnant woman.

We are interested in identifying the differences in immune responses between pregnant and non-pregnant women and how infection can affect the pregnancy. To address these questions, we are currently examining the immune cells in the maternal blood, [umbilical] cord blood, and placental tissue of women who were infected with SARS-CoV-2.

You’re an author on a recent publication which investigated human T-cell-mediated immunity in COVID-19. Congratulations! Can you tell us more about this research?

In this study, we mainly focused on killer (CD8+) T cells due to their important role in clearing viral infections; for instance, they are integral to mounting an effective and rapid recovery from viruses such as influenza. We found that SARS-CoV-2-specific killer T cells are present at much lower levels in people with COVID-19, compared to influenza or glandular fever.

We looked at T cells in people who express a protein called human leucocyte antigen (HLA) serotype HLA-A2, as HLA proteins are important for T cell recognition and vary across individuals. We found two HLA-A*02:01-restricted CD8+ T cell epitopes for SARS-CoV-2 and were surprised to find that these T cells were at a relatively low frequency and less activated when compared to the CD8+ T cells specific for influenza A virus and Epstein Barr virus.

Knowing the specific T cells and proteins of SARS-CoV-2 to target for protective immunity will help to inform the design of an effective vaccine.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in this area of science?

As with many areas of science, immunology is so complex. It can be hard to connect the dots and see the big picture. I think it is important to think about how our work as immunologists translates to what we observe during disease states.

You recently participated in the Doherty Institute #homescience challenge on TikTok, with your video extracting the DNA of a banana being viewed an incredible 13,000 times! Why do you think it’s important to communicate science to non-scientific audiences? 

Participating in this challenge was so fun! It is so important to communicate science to the non-scientific audiences, especially since science-denialism seems to be on the rise. The wider community can be highly sceptical of science, but as humans we tend to fear what we don’t understand. If we communicate our work in a way that is easy to understand (easier said than done), a lot of confusion and misunderstanding from non-scientists could be avoided.