An interview with Dr Clare Jolly

January 2020

Dr Clare Jolly is an Associate Professor in Virus Cell Biology at University College London and a member of the Microbiology Society. Her lab researches the cell biology of HIV-1 infection and its spread in T cells, to inform future antiviral strategies. In this interview, she tells us more about her research and explains why it is so important to undertake infection research.


Tell us about your area of research.

I was always interested in science at school, and during my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne; Australia I became especially fascinated by viruses. Following my undergraduate degree, I did a PhD with Professor Ian Holmes, studying viral and cellular receptors for Rotavirus–an infection that causes viral gastroenteritis. It was an amazing environment and I was very fortunate to have a supervisor who co-discovered rotavirus and gave me the freedom to explore my interests.

I knew I wanted to continue researching viruses and was especially interested in HIV, so I moved to London and embarked on a postdoc and a career in HIV research. HIV infects CD4+ T cells and it is the death and dysfunction of these cells that drives AIDS.

During my postdoc with Professor Quentin Sattentau we discovered that the dominant mode by which HIV disseminates between CD4+ T cells, is by a process of cell-cell spread that occurs at immune cell contacts that we termed virological synapses. This has remained a major area of interest to me, and my lab has continued to try to understand the molecular process of cell-cell spread, and the implications this has for evasion of host antiviral defenses; the efficacy of antiretroviral therapy and viral pathogenesis.

Research in my lab has diversified over the years, but broadly speaking, we aim to understand the cell biology of HIV replication in T cells, and to identify and characterize the key virus-host interactions that regulate successful HIV replication and spread between cells. To put it simply, we want to know how HIV works and how it causes disease.

Why is this research important?

Viruses are fantastic cell biologists who can teach us how cells function. Many fundamental discoveries in biology have been possible through the use of viruses. However viruses such as HIV still remain a significant global health challenge.

It is true that we have many good drugs to treat HIV, but these are not accessible to everyone who is HIV positive and we need a cure. If we can achieve a greater insight into the biology of HIV infection in immune cells and viral pathogenesis, we can help inform future therapeutic strategies to eradicate the virus and reverse the damage HIV causes to the immune system. Importantly, because HIV infects immune cells, we can also use the virus as a tool to better understand how T cells and the immune system functions in health and disease.

We still remain under threat by various pandemics and emerging diseases, why is it important to undertake infection research?

We are constantly under threat, and being challenged by microbes. Taking a look through the history books, it is clear to see how pandemics and epidemics have shaped humanity.

The current HIV pandemic, and the emergence of other infectious viral diseases such as Ebola and Zika, are reminders of the constant battle that exists between pathogens and humans. I think many people are simply not aware of the ongoing threat that infections pose. This not only includes new or emerging pathogens, but also infections that should be entirely preventable through vaccination or the appropriate use of antibiotics.

The current measles virus outbreaks that are occurring in many countries, is a timely reminder. We have an excellent and effective vaccine, but sadly the spread of misinformation about vaccines, coupled with the fact that many people have no memory of the devastation infections like this can cause; has highlighted how the lessons of infection research can be quickly forgotten.

Why does microbiology matter?

For all the reasons above, understanding how we exist and interact with other species and micro-organisms is important. I work on HIV that poses an immediate and global health problem, but microbiology encompasses a huge diversity of organisms, both good and bad. We need to know about the bad microbes that cause disease, and how to prevent and treat infections, but also the good microbes that colonize us and keep us healthy. The latter includes environmental microbes that maintain the planet as a hospitable environment in which we can live. Microbiology is fundamental to life, that’s why it matters.

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