UTHSC Researcher Amali E. Samarasinghe Receives $1.9 Million Grant to Study Functions of White Blood Cells as Protectors Against Influenza Infections

The lab of Dr. Amali E. Samarasinghe has received a $1.9 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to investigate the mechanisms by which certain white blood cells regulate antiviral immune responses against influenza A virus infections. (From left to right: Laura Doorley (graduate student); Jennifer Lee, MD, (clinical fellow); Amali Samarasinghe, PhD, (PI); Kim LeMessurier, PhD, (research associate and lab manager); Maneesha Palipane (senior research assistant). (Photo by Thurman Hobson/UTHSC)

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center announced today that Amali E. Samarasinghe, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics in the College of Medicine, has received a $1,919,402 award from the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Samarasinghe will investigate the mechanisms by which certain white blood cells regulate antiviral immune responses against influenza A virus infections.

Amali E. Samarasinghe, PhD (Photo by Thurman Hobson/UTHSC)

According to research, Influenza A virus infections have claimed over 50 million lives worldwide during epidemics and pandemics. During the 2009 influenza pandemic, patients with asthma proved less likely to suffer from severe influenza than non-asthmatics. While biomedical researchers grapple with this mystery, Dr. Samarasinghe’s lab was able to successfully recreate these findings in mice, and discovered that high numbers of a type of white blood cells, called eosinophils, correlated with reduced viral burden in the lungs of asthmatics.

“Using our innovative model, we aim to show that the presence of eosinophils actually works to the advantage of acute asthmatics that are infected with the flu virus,” Dr. Samarasinghe said.

Research in her lab showed that excessive amounts of eosinophils are helpful, not harmful, to asthmatic patients infected with the influenza virus, and the virus is cleared faster when these cells are present than when they are not. Dr. Samarasinghe’s innovative research project titled, “Eosinophils as Regulators of Host Immunity Against Influenza Infections,” is expected to have a broad impact on allergology, eosinophil biology, and virology, and may offer novel therapeutic targets to treat influenza.

“We want to understand this process further, so we can use the findings to prevent people who do not have asthma from getting influenza and suffering severe complications, and then develop treatments,” Dr. Samarasinghe said.

Dr. Samarasinghe’s all-female lab is one of the only units currently studying eosinophils as a regulator of protection against influenza virus infections. She has also established collaborations with multiple researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to elucidate the role of eosinophils in the context of other pulmonary diseases such as bacterial pneumonia.

Dr. Samarasinghe has been with UTHSC’s Department of Pediatrics since 2012. She is the recipient of the following intramural and extramural grant funding: Le Bonheur Junior Faculty award (2013, 2014), Bea Gerber Award (2013), iRISE Pilot Translational and Clinical Studies (PTCS) Program grant (2015), Le Bonheur Young Investigator Award (2015), the American Lung Association’s Biomedical Research Grant award (2015-2017).