Laying the Foundation for Innovation in Immunology

TSBI collaborates in a pan-European programme to train the next generation of viral immunometabolism experts

Sep 10, 2021Training

Postgrad Anna Hastings and the 800 MHz NMR spectrometer

INITIATE(s) Hauke Weiss, Coralie Guy, and Mihai Sularea at TBSI; photo: © Trevor Butterworth

By Aisling Cameron

INITIATE, an acronym for Innate-Immunometabolism as Antiviral Target, is a European Commission-funded training network and fellowship program for early career researchers that connects European laboratories working in immunology, immunometabolism, and virology. The goal is to nurture collaboration in the rapidly growing fields of virology, innate immunity and immunometabolism to examine how signalling pathways and reactions within immune cells affect the body’s immune response to viruses.

“The innate immune system is the body’s early warning system that sounds the alarm that a virus is present”, said Andrew Bowie, Professor of Innate Immunology at Trinity College Dublin and one of the PIs involved in the programme, “and the more we understand about how anti-viral innate immunity works, the better equipped we will be to tackle viral diseases, such as COVID-19”.

The network connects 15 Principal Investigators (PIs) from seven countries by placing 15 PhD students in their labs. The students have the opportunity to travel across Europe for secondments in other universities to train in different disciplines. “If you are in an immunology-based lab, you go to a virology lab and vice versa”, said Coralie Guy, a French PhD student based in Bowies lab in Trinity Biological Sciences Institute (TBSI). “The pan-European nature of the programme exposes the students to different research cultures in different countries,” said Bowie, “and it gives them a broader perspective on the different approaches to conducting research”.

The students also have secondments in industry, which exposes them to how industry conducts scientific discovery. Guy will spend her secondment with AstraZeneca in Gothenburg, Sweden, while other students will be seconded to companies such as Stimunity, a biotherapeutics start-up company in Paris, or Janssen Vaccines and Prevention in Leiden.

“The combination of both academic and industrial partners in training of the 15 European PhDs provides excellent career opportunities for these students”, said Dr. Bernadette van den Hoogen, coordinator of the INITIATE program, and Assistant Professor in the Department of Viroscience at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam.

 Good and bad timing

The outbreak of COVID-19 six months into the start of the programme starkly underlined the global importance of a multidisciplinary approach to immunology and virology and the value of scientific collaboratives, while at the same time making it extremely difficult to actually do research in the collaborative way intended. As the lockdowns took effect, and unable to return to their homes or see their families, the students turned to documenting their individual experiences in blog posts.

I am currently unable to continue my PhD project in the lab, this is especially frustrating as an immunologist doing research on the very mechanisms that protect us from viral infections”, wrote Hauke Weiss, a student from Germany working in the lab of Professor Luke O’Neill in TBSI. “No-one likes their work to be called ‘non-essential’ but especially in a virology department during a viral pandemic” wrote Pau Ribó Molina, a Catalan student based in van den Hoogen’s lab at Erasmus Medical Center, “as all research not directly related to SARS-CoV-2 ceased during this time.”


  • Trinity College Dublin, IE
  • Leiden University Medical Center, NL
  • Norwegian University of Science & Technology, Trondheim, NO
  • Utrecht University, NL
  • Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, NL
  • Institute Pasteur, Rome, IT
  • Center for Molecular Medicine, Vienna, AT
  • AstraZeneca, Stockholm, SE
  • Stimunity, Paris, FR
  • Janssen Vaccines & Prevention, Leiden, NL


  • Agilent
  • Biocrates
  • Elsevier
  • Sovalacc
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions

Named after the brilliant scientist who won two Nobel Prizes in different fields, Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions is European Commission’s fund to drive excellence and capacity in research and innovation across Europe by equipping researchers at all stages of their careers with new knowledge and skills through collaborative projects like INITIATE.

To learn more about its programmes, click here.


By May, they were able to return to work, but the pandemic disrupted secondment placements and group meetings. “We were supposed to meet every six months in one of the different cities where we are based. We had a kick-off meeting in Rotterdam last year in January and then the pandemic started”, said Mihai Sularea, an Italian ESR working in the lab of  Cliona O’Farrelly, Chair of Comparative Immunology at Trinity College Dublin. “We were supposed to meet last summer in Dublin, we didn’t. We were supposed to meet last December in Vienna, we didn’t. Hopefully we can meet next September here in Dublin, but it is still something that we don’t really know”.

The pandemic posed an additional set of challenges for the students when travelling to complete their secondments. “You have to test, you have to quarantine, so it is more difficult now”, said Guy. “Normally, the secondment is three months, but it was shortened to make up for lost time due to the lock-down”. Finding accommodation is also difficult. “I knew that I was going to respect the rules, but I could not risk depending on the social lives of my flatmates”, said Ribó Molina. “Just imagine that one of the flatmates tests positive or has symptoms, I am coming for two months only, time is precious”.

Amid the havoc, there were opportunities. “The lab didn’t really work with viruses prior to the pandemic”, said Weiss, “they worked with a metabolite called itaconate. But we thought if this compound is antiviral in a very broad sense, and that it would be interesting to try it with SARS-CoV-2”. Weiss completed his academic secondment in Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, where he could access a model of SARS-CoV-2 infection in cells. “It turned out’, he said, “that 4-OI, a derivative of itaconate, reduced the viral load in these cells.” Weiss and others in the O’Neill lab are now currently exploring the mechanisms by which the 4-OI metabolite does this as well as the pathology caused by a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Much like other PhD programmes, INITIATE provides students with skills essential for their careers. “We learn how to logically design an experiment, learn how to work in a lab, learn how to manage a lab, how to write a paper and, of course, publish”, said Sularea. “and INITIATE differs from other PhD programmes by giving ESRs experience in different disciplines and in different countries.”

“The programme will provide a wide European Network for life for these students”, said van den Hoogen. “In addition, training in three different disciplines and training by both industrial and academic partners provides students with knowledge and networks from which they will benefit for the rest of their career”.

“It is such an exciting and demanding challenge for students and PIs alike to be researching and learning about this important topic right in the middle of a viral epidemic”, said O’Farrelly. “What is really exciting about this PhD programme is the potential for the discovery of new therapies and diagnostics for dealing with viral infection coming from these exceptional PhD students working with world leaders in virology, immunology and immunometabolism.”


Aisling Cameron finished her B.A. (Mod) in 2020, specialising in Molecular Medicine and subsequently completed her MSc in Immunotherapeutics in 2021 from Trinity College Dublin. She is currently working as a lab manager and research assistant in the lab of David Finlay in TBSI. She is interested in immunology, immunometabolism and science communication. 


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