Welcoming Professor Alain Kohl

News article 5 Jul 2023
Headshot of Professor Alain Kohl

Professor Kohl is joining LSTM’s Departments of Vector Biology and Tropical Disease Biology as Professor in Virology. This is a strategic appointment intended to develop our research base in virology / arbovirology given the increasing importance to global health of emerging and re-emerging viral disease. We spoke to him about his current work and where LSTM might focus in the future.

Hi, welcome to LSTM. First, can you tell us a bit about your new role at LSTM?

Hello. I'll be Professor in Virology at LSTM. There has of course been virology research at the school in the past and clearly there’s a desire to expand this type of work. I'll be bringing my research programme from the University of Glasgow that's specifically looking at emerging arboviruses which is something I think the school has considerable interest in historically. My arrival at LSTM hopefully brings new angles and themes in virology to LSTM.

Can you explain what an arbovirus is and why the study of them is important?

Arboviruses are viruses that are transmitted by arthropods – mosquitoes, ticks, midges. They are quite unique viruses as they replicate in arthropods as well as in vertebrates like humans. Most people would have heard of viruses like Zika, dengue and chikungunya, and if you’ve followed the news you may have seen that a woman came back to England from South of France where she had caught dengue. This is rare but we know that you occasionally have locally transmitted dengue and chikungunya cases in southern Europe as a mosquito species that can transmit these viruses has now made parts of southern Europe its home. And then of course we have animal viruses. So these viruses have considerable interest for me from both a human and animal health point of view.

So climate change is one of the factors is helping increase the demand for this type of research?

Climate change certainly brings another variable into what is already a very complex ecology when it comes to these viruses. The different mosquitoes that transmit these viruses don't all behave the same way, and how some of these things are going to change over time is a critically important factor. For example, where are some mosquitoes going to spread, where will they be able to survive, to what extent will climate change contribute to this? That's really of great interest to a lot of people concerned about the emergence of viruses and disease.

So, your work at LSTM is going to be a continuation of the work you're currently doing at the University of Glasgow?

That's correct. My work in Glasgow has focused very clearly on arboviruses. We have done a lot of work trying to understand how arthropods, specifically mosquitoes, interact with these viruses, how they fight viruses, how this links to transmission of these viruses. But we also do a lot of classical virology, like trying to engineer viruses, trying to understand how viruses replicate. And there's a lot of crossovers because if you understand how a mosquito interacts with the virus, that comes down to basic biology at some point - trying to understand how the virus replicates, how a cell or organism recognises the virus and then tries to fight it or control it. And that’s also true for vertebrate cells - I keep an interest in that field as well. We look at arboviruses from a number of different angles, but mosquitoes are central to a lot of what we do.

What are you particularly looking forward to about coming to LSTM?

LSTM has an enormous history in the field of exotic diseases, a rich tradition that is very difficult to replicate anywhere else. There are very few places which have this sort of outlook on these types of vector borne diseases. LSTM offers enormous potential in terms of working with insects and the specialists who really know transmission. It has the safety labs, it has the experience, it has the resources, it has the infrastructure. There are few places that can really rival the history and expertise of a place like LSTM, and that makes it enormously attractive. I'm really glad to see that LSTM is now also looking even more at virology and that’s where I come in, of course.

Historically, LSTM has done so much pioneering work on understanding transmission, from insecticide work to parasite transmission, to the use of bed nets with insecticides. It has a translational focus, keeping an eye on how you turn results into something that is useful to the people whose lives we are trying to make better. It takes the philosophy and infrastructure to be willing to do that and that is what makes a place like LSTM so unique.

And of course, capacity strengthening. LSTM is a school and training will always be at the heart of its work, whether PhD students, master’s students or postdoctoral fellows. There are people at different career stages that we will try to give the expertise, the skills and the knowledge to complete their studies or move on in their careers.

During our 125 anniversary year celebrations we are also looking to the future and the global health challenges that face us - I’m thinking arboviruses are one of those. What other big issues do you think LSTM should be thinking about?

LSTM has a foothold in the parasitology and vector fields but there are still many basic questions on transmission that remain unsolved. I don't think that the problems of parasitic diseases, viral diseases are going to be solved anytime soon because we'll probably see the emergence of new problems in the future. A place like LSTM can make a unique impact that can be related to novel transmission inhibition strategies, genetic modification of mosquitoes, ways of inhibiting transmission that are not easily testable unless you have the infrastructure and philosophy that LSTM has. There are also possibilities in drug development, again within the translational philosophy of the school. Despite many years of research, we still lack patient-applicable drugs for many viruses and novel pathogens, and the same is true for vaccines. We've had antibiotics for quite some time which have saved countless lives, but with viruses we're still nowhere near when it comes to drugs, with the exceptions of HIV and hepatitis C. LSTM has an infrastructure that would allow it to work in the vaccine and antiviral fields and have a massive impact.

That’s great. Thanks for your time