In profile: Lucy Thorne, Lecturer in Molecular Virology

As part of our Staff Profile series, we spoke to Lucy Thorne who has recently joined us as a Lecturer in Molecular Virology. In this profile she tells us more about how she came to work in Virology and her commitment to public engagement.

Introduce yourself – who are you and what do you do?

Hi I’m Lucy, I’m a new lecturer in the Section of Virology and a new group leader. I study emerging viruses and how they overcome our frontline immune defences, and I’m trying to understand what makes pandemic viruses special in their ability to do this to spread so effectively in humans.

Can you tell us about your career so far – when did you join the college, and where were you working before this?

I joined the college as a new group leader in June, and this first six months has flown by! I actually did my PhD at Imperial, and in virology at St Mary’s, so I’m back where it all began! It’s really nice to meet familiar faces again as well as new colleagues. Before joining here I’d completed my first postdoc at the University of Cambridge, also in virology, working on norovirus-host interactions. During my postdoc I also spent time working in Uganda establishing a collaborative norovirus project, and in Sierra Leone contributing to the response to the Ebola virus outbreak in 2015. After that, I moved with a fellowship to UCL to work on HIV and its interactions with the innate immune system, but when the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic hit, we pivoted our research to ask similar questions about how SARS-CoV-2 manages human innate immunity and how the variants were evolving to spread more effectively.

Can you explain a bit more about your research interests, and what are working on at Imperial?

New viruses are emerging in the human population all the time, we’ve seen a new virus or re-emerging virus nearly every year for the last 20 years, and the rate of this is increasing with ongoing climate and environmental changes, which is something I’m really interested in. A key question in preparing for new virus outbreaks is which viruses have the most pandemic potential? My research is focussed on understanding how new viruses overcome our frontline defence against infection, the innate immune system. This is a broad surveillance and defence system that provides a universal barrier against emerging viruses, and can limit transmission across and within species, unless viruses evolve strategies to overcome it. We think their ability to overcome these defence links to their success.

My aim is to understand how new viruses manage the human innate immune system to emerge and evolve, and we are using SARS-CoV-2 initially as a model to understand this. I’ve been studying SARS-CoV-2 evolution in real time for the past few years and how its interactions with human cells are evolving. We discovered that the variants of concern, which are better at spreading in humans, have evolved to get even better at escaping frontline innate immune defences. We now want to learn as much as we can from SARS-CoV-2 about what makes pandemic viruses special in the way they overcome these defences and how this links to their ability to transmit and cause disease. I think this is a key part of preparing and understanding which emerging viruses pose the most risk for future pandemics.

What initially sparked your interest in your current field of research?

I’ve always been interested understanding the basis of human health and disease, but I became fascinated by viruses initially because with so few genes they can completely reprogramme our own complex cells. In this way viruses are great cell biologists and I think we can learn a lot from them about our own biology. Ebola for example has just 7 genes but is so destructive, I’ve seen this first hand, and so discovering how it does this and if we can exploit its molecular secrets for interventions is ultimate problem solving, and I find this really motivating.

The challenges in virology are ever changing, because, as we’ve all just seen and been through, viruses emerge and evolve so quickly. So virology can be fast paced at times, needing fast rates of discovery, and joined up thinking from different disciplines about how viruses interact with their hosts at the molecular level all the way through to the global population, which I really enjoy. Viruses impact every species so virology is truly about One Health and thinking about how interconnected we are with other species and the health of the planet, which is fascinating.

What aspect of your role are you most excited about?

I’ve been really enjoying meeting new people and I’m excited to start making new collaborations at Imperial. I’ve been enjoying finding out about Imperial’s brilliant research across disciplines, for example I just attended the Jameel Institute Annual Symposium on the impact of climate change on health, as I’m really interested in thinking about how this impacts infectious disease and viral emergence. I’m also really excited to start building and mentoring my own team.

When you are not working, what are your main passions and hobbies?

I love being outdoors and especially by the sea, and being active, it really helps me relax and reset, so at weekends we often try and get out for a walk with friends or escape to the sea to swim and surf. At home I really enjoy cooking and I love trying and swapping new recipes. At the moment though I’m spending most of my time chasing my daughter around, she’s one and a half, very funny and already strong-willed and very good at climbing everywhere- a dangerous combination!

If you were to have a superpower, what would it be?

I’d love to be able to fly! It’s a bit of an obvious one but the freedom and perspective from gliding through the sky would be amazing. I could visit and help family and friends all over the world in an instant, and we could be at the beach or in the mountains in seconds! Plus helping to save the planet Superman-style of course…

And finally, is there anything you would like people in the Department to know about you or your role that we haven’t already covered?

Alongside my research I run public engagement programmes in schools in the UK and in Sierra Leone. We set up the Sierra Leone programme after seeing the response to the Ebola virus outbreak. We wanted to spark conversations about infectious disease and raise awareness through exciting hands-on discovery science activities. As part of this I developed an Outbreak activity, where students have to race to discover and control a mystery outbreak of disease that spreads in real time through news updates and briefings. I’ve developed different versions for primary and secondary school students, and I now run a few events a year in London. We were running this in the years before the pandemic so I like to think all the students we engaged had an understanding of how viruses spread and how you can prevent this.

The sessions are great fun, and I enjoy stepping outside the lab to put my research in context and think about it differently. It’s also really helped me develop confidence, get over nerves in public speaking and practice communicating my research at all levels – often 8 year olds ask the questions that really make you think! I’m always looking for volunteers to help run Outbreak in the UK, everyone is welcome and I train volunteers in the activities and can help with tips about public engagement, so if anyone is interested please drop me an email and I can let you know about upcoming events and ways to get involved.