Antiviral Response: Eosinophils Active in Immediate Defense During Influenza A Infection (Medicine)

For the first time in published literature, Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) researchers showed that a variety of white blood cells known as eosinophils modify the respiratory barrier during influenza A (IAV) infection, according to a recent paper in the journal Cells. This research could have implications in understanding SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) infection in asthmatic patients.

The Le Bonheur/UTHSC study found that eosinophils immunomodulate airway epithelial cells during IAV infection, helping to neutralize the virus and protect the airway. The study was led by University of Tennessee Health Science Center Postdoctoral Fellow Meenakshi Tiwary, PhD, from the lab of Director of the Pediatric Asthma Research Program and Plough Foundation Chair of Excellence in Pediatrics, Amali Samarasinghe, PhD, in collaboration with Robert Rooney, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and director of the Biorepository and Integrative Genomics Initiative at Le Bonheur, and Swantje Liedmann, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“We examined eosinophil responses to influenza A virus during the early phase of infection and found that eosinophils exhibit multiple functions as active mediators of antiviral host defense,” said Samarasinghe. “These include virus neutralization, trafficking to draining lymphoid organs and, most importantly, protecting the airway barrier from virus-induced cytopathology.”

The study used both mouse models and cell culture models to observe eosinophil responses during the early phases of IAV infection. Investigators found that eosinophils altered the respiratory epithelial transcriptome to enhance epithelial cell defense against virus-induced damage. As eosinophil-deficient allergic mice had heightened virus-induced damage to the epithelial barrier, eosinophil and epithelial cell interactions are necessary for host protection during influenza.

Further results included the following:

  • Eosinophils are activated within 20 minutes of virus infection. As a result of IAV infection, eosinophil movement into and out of the lungs increased, and activated eosinophils expressed markers necessary to migrate into lymphoid organs from the site of infection
  • Crosstalk between airway epithelial cells and eosinophils promotes activation in both cell types. The presence of eosinophils reduced expression of specific surface markers in epithelial cells when placed in close proximity during IAV infection. This iespecially important given that this study provides direct evidence that eosinophils are not toxic to host tissue.

This study builds on research from Samarasinghe’s lab investigating why asthmatics were less likely to suffer from severe disease than non-asthmatics during the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Previous research has shown that eosinophils have a higher prevalence in asthmatic lungs and aided patients during infection.

“Reports from the COVID-19 pandemic have early indicators that patients with allergic asthma are not at increased risk of severe COVID-19,” said Samarasinghe. “It is tempting to speculate that eosinophils may play an antiviral role against SARS-CoV-2, similar to their function against influenza A and other virus infections.”

Reference: Tiwary M, Rooney RJ, Liedmann S, LeMessurier KS, Samarasinghe AE. Eosinophil Responses at the Airway Epithelial Barrier during the Early Phase of Influenza a Virus Infection in C57BL/6 Mice. Cells. 2021; 10(3):509.

Provided by La Bonheur Children’s Hospital

About Le Bonheur Children’s:

Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., treats children through community programs, regional clinics and a 255-bed state-of-the-art hospital. Le Bonheur serves as a primary teaching affiliate for the University Tennessee Health Science Center and trains more than 350 pediatricians and specialists each year. Nationally recognized, Le Bonheur is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as a Best Children’s Hospital. 

For more information, please call (901) 287-6030 or visit Connect with us at or on Instagram at  lebonheurchildrens.

About University of Tennessee Health Science Center:

As Tennessee’s only public, statewide, academic health system, the mission of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center is to bring the benefits of the health sciences to the achievement and maintenance of human health through education, research, clinical care, and public service, with a focus on the citizens of Tennessee and the region. The main campus in Memphis includes six colleges: Dentistry, Graduate Health Sciences, Health Professions, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy. UTHSC also educates and trains medicine, pharmacy, and/or health professions students, as well as medical residents and fellows, at major sites in Knoxville, Chattanooga and Nashville. For more information, visit www.uthsc.eduFind us on

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About St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital:

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is leading the way the world understands, treats and
defeats childhood cancer and other deadly diseases. St. Jude has the world’s best survival
rates for the most aggressive childhood cancers, and treatments invented at St. Jude have
helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent since
we opened more than 50 years ago. St. Jude is working to drive the overall survival rate for
childhood cancer to 90 percent in the next decade. St. Jude freely shares the breakthroughs
we make, and every child saved at St. Jude means doctors and scientists worldwide can
use that knowledge to save thousands more children. Families never receive a bill from
St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing and food – because all a family should worry about is
helping their child live. Join the St. Jude mission by visiting or following St. Jude
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