Respiratory Virus Research

Professor Kirsten Spann leads the Respiratory Virus Research Group: a team of researchers examining viruses and respiratory diseases.

Professor Spann’s group is:

  1. Developing nasal and lung epithelial cell models to examine immune responses to viruses
  2. Examining how viruses and the body’s immune response exacerbate chronic respiratory conditions including asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  3. Researching the role of viruses in pediatric otitis media (children’s middle ear infections)
  4. Bringing virus expertise to other research, including improving air-conditioning systems

The team’s work combines virology, immunology and cell biology.

Develop models to examine airway epithelial immune responses

Professor Spann’s group is utilising and developing 3D nasal and lung primary epithelial cell culture models to better understand the underlying causes of respiratory disease. One such culture can be seen in the video at the bottom of the page. In this video lung epithelial cells (which line the airways) have been differentiated to produce mucus and cilia, which beat synchronously to move the mucus. These cells provide a non-invasive pre-clinical model to better understand disease processes such as epithelial barrier function, antiviral and antimicrobial immune defence, ciliary function, mucus production and treatment responses. The group is using these models to understand disease process for the following chronic conditions:


1 in 10 Australians has asthma and respiratory viral infections are one of the main causes of an asthma attack. Professor Spann’s group has been investigating how viruses interact with the immune system in asthma. In collaboration with researchers at The University of Queensland they identified that airway epithelial cells from pre-asthmatic wheezy children respond very differently to different viral infections, some resulting in suppression of the immune response, such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a common childhood respiratory pathogen, while other viruses do not suppress the immune response. This demonstrated differences in how viruses can cause disease, and that we cannot consider that “one response fits all” when working towards an understanding of anti-viral immune responses in asthma.

They also found that in nasal cells from asthmatics, cell death pathways required for viral clearance are not adequately activated. Infected cells do not die as rapidly as they should, leading to virus accumulation and increasing the risk of spread to the lungs; thus inducing an asthma attack. Professor Spann’s group continues to be interested in the modulation of cell death pathways and anti-viral responses as treatment targets for asthma.


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the third most prevalent cause of death globally and current treatments are sub-optimal. Professor Spann is collaborating with the University of Queensland and Queensland Government Metro South Hospital and Health District to examining the effect of viruses on exacerbations of COPD and how changes in the antiviral immune response of airway epithelial cells affect disease severity. A 3D cell culture model for COPD is being used to understand immune response profiles and identify treatment targets that will reduce the effect of viral infections.

Childhood Otitis Media

Otitis media (middle ear inflammation) is the number one reason for antibiotic prescriptions in children. Overuse of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance by the bacteria involved in ear infections. Additionally, antibiotics do not treat upper respiratory viruses, such as cold viruses, that cause ear inflammation in the first place. Professor Spann’s group is using a 3D model of nasal cells from children prone to ear infections to determine why some children develop ear infections while others do not. They are also investigating ways to modulate the immune and inflammatory response to viruses in the child’s nose to reduce the risk of progression to middle ear infection.

Improve air-conditioner design to prevent the spread of viruses

Professor Spann’s team is bringing virus expertise to an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded collaboration with QUT’s Science and Engineering Faculty, to examining respiratory virus transmission through air-conditioning. The group aims to understand how airborne viruses can be killed through regulating humidity within airconditioning units. This will inform a redesign of air-conditioner condensers to prevent aerosolized transmission of viruses and other pathogens. The result will be healthier hospitals and medical offices, and is likely to impact beyond the health sector into airline and commercial air-conditioning systems.

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