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31 Jul 2020

Meet our people – Q&A with Dr Marios Koutsakos

University of Melbourne Dr Marios Koutsakos, Postdoctoral Fellow with the Kedzierska Laboratory Group at the Doherty Institute 

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

I completed my PhD with Professor Katherine Kedzierska in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, University of Melbourne at the Doherty Institute, focusing on understanding protective immunity to influenza viruses, especially the understudied but clinically relevant influenza B viruses. I am now a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Kedzierska Group. I have been an active member of the Doherty Institute as a past member on its postgraduate student association and the Immunology group of Victoria, as well as by co-organising monthly seminar series on respiratory research within the Institute.

What are you currently working on?

My post-doctoral work has focused on characterising the mechanisms that provide protective immunity to influenza B viruses, as well as immunity in high-risk groups of severe influenza infection, such as transplant recipients. I have also been involved in establishing collaborative links with industry partners for the pre-clinical development of a universal influenza vaccine. Since the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in early 2020, a lot of my focus has shifted to understanding the immune response during SARS-CoV-2 infection.

What initially attracted you to the field of science your area of expertise?

I was always curious about biology. As an undergraduate at Imperial College, London, I became fascinated by immunology and viruses. Partly by chance, I found myself working with Professor Wendy Barclay, who shared her infectious passion about influenza viruses (pun intended). I was amazed by how something so small and relatively simple, when compared to humans, can take over our bodies. Through a series of unlikely but very fortunate events, I then found myself 16000 kilometres further away at the Kedzierska lab at the Doherty Institute, where I became fascinated by human immunology and the complexity of the immune system.

How does this contribute to the field of science?

How the immune system interacts with viruses is a complex and intricate process. Understanding how this works and how the immune system has evolved to equip us with protective mechanisms against the vast diversity of pathogens is critical to the design of vaccines, as well as therapies against infectious diseases. While my research is fuelled by curiosity about the basic principles that govern the human immune responses against infection, I always like to ask myself: How can this help us fight pathogens like influenza viruses? My research has therefore pivoted around translating basic immunology into effective vaccines/therapies/biomarkers that may, hopefully, be of benefit to Australia.

For those doing work that’s involving COVID, how does this fit into the pandemic?

Our work on SARS-CoV-2 immunity is focused on understanding the immunological mechanisms that determine COVID-19 severity, as well as the generation of effective long-term immunity. Such an understanding can help identify biomarkers of COVID-19 severity, as well as potential therapeutic targets to treat SARS-CoV-2 infection. It can also identify biomarkers of an effective immune response that could be leveraged in vaccine clinical trials.

What do you see as the biggest scientific challenges in your area of work?

Translation of a scientific discovery from the lab bench to the bedside is often hindered by limitations of ‘simplistic’ animal models and experimental systems used in the lab, which may not fully capture the complexity of the human immune system. More advanced experimental systems - like organoids and wild animal models - hold significant promise in overcoming these challenges.

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