KU Leuven Rega Institute for Medical Research | SAM VERWIMP, PHD STUDENT

Mosquito-borne viruses (i.e., Zika virus, chikungunya virus) pose a significant threat for global public health and yet, until now, there are no efficient vaccines or antivirals available. In the Mosquito Virology Team at the Rega Institute for Medical Research in Leuven, we aim to find novel concepts and strategies to block mosquito-borne virus transmission and disease. My research project focusses on the vector-host skin interface, where mosquito-borne viruses are inoculated after an infectious mosquito bite and encounter a complex environment of host responses. These early phases are critical for the virus to establish an efficient infection, but large knowledge gaps remain regarding interactions of the virus with all components present in the host skin. Therefore, we are currently investigating the effect of host skin bacteria, abundantly present at the vector-host skin interface, on the outcome of mosquito-borne virus infections.

To this end, we use two models: an in vivo mouse model and an ex vivo human skin model. By using Hamilton products, we can precisely and accurately inject small and standardized volumes of the virus together with mosquito saliva intradermally into the skin. Doing so, we can optimize our mouse and human skin model and mimic natural transmission by mosquito bites as closely as possible. Using these infection models, we will investigate the role of the host skin bacteriome on the viral infection, either by antibiotic treatment of the skin to deplete the bacteria or by bacteria transplantations to modify the bacteria.

In this way, we aim to enable an improved understanding of mosquito-borne diseases and their interactions at the vector-host skin interface, providing fundamental steps towards new and effective antiviral strategies. I am very honoured and thankful to perform this research, receiving support from the Hamilton Syringe Grant.

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