An interview with Professor Alison Sinclair

June 2020

Alison Sinclair is Professor of Molecular Virology (Biochemistry), Director of Teaching and Learning (School of Life Sciences) at the University of Sussex, UK. She is a member of the Microbiology Society and a Fellow of the Royal Society for Biology. In this interview, she tells us more about her research, which focuses on Epstein Barr virus (EBV) and defining mechanisms by which epigenetics can alter the control of the expression of the viral genome.

Alison Sinclair
© Alison Sinclair

When did you first decide to pursue a career in microbiology?

I was drawn to microbiology as a cause of many human diseases and my interest has remained, as it is clear that many of those diseases can be prevented or cured by gaining a deep understanding of the biological processes that allow them to replicate within us.

Tell us more about your research.

Viruses have fascinated me since I first undertook research investigating a virus that causes breast cancer in mice. The importance of the virus in reprogramming the expression of the host cell’s genes was critical to its ability to cause cancer. I then acquired specialist skills to allow me to research gene expression while at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg.

How have you gone on to use these specialist skills when studying genes?

Epstein Barr virus (EBV) is associated with many human diseases including two types of cancer – lymphomas and carcinomas. Using my knowledge of gene expression, I researched the regulation of EBV gene expression and its impact on the genome of the cell that it infects.

The most exciting research that my group has contributed to, is defining mechanisms by which epigenetics can alter the control of the expression of the viral genome, and so change the fate of an infected cell. The addition of a simple methyl group (-CH3) to a cytosine residue within DNA is able to convert a genetic element from being undetectable into being a strong element that directs the activation of gene expression. This has major impacts on the ability of EBV to lie dormant in cells and for the virus to reactivate later on.

Why is this research important?

The translational nature of my group’s research lies with the potential to identify factors that contribute to viral reactivation and replication within cancer cells. This would destroy the cancer cells by exposing them to a strong immune response and making them susceptible to a drug that targets cells containing replicating herpes viruses.

What additional work have you carried out to enhance the understanding of viruses?

For 25 years, I have also taught undergraduate and postgraduate students about infectious disease with an emphasis on virology. The link between research and teaching is important as research knowledge feeds into state-of-the-art teaching and raises questions that feed back into research.

Why does microbiology matter?

Microbiology is important because microbes cause disease and it is fascinating to work out how – with the hope of curing or preventing all microbiology-related disease in the future.

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