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Dr Lucy Thorne


Lucy Thorne is a virologist and biochemist focusing her research on the norovirus.  A FameLab finalist, Lucy is also a communicator of science giving talks at festivals and events across Britain.

It’s infectious disease that I think is really exciting.

On getting involved in virology

So all throughout, I’ve always loved the sciences; in particular I’ve loved studying in detail how our bodies work, in health and how they go wrong in disease because that’s when you really start thinking about how you can fix problems.  So from there I looked into lots of areas of disease, like cancer research, but it’s infectious disease that I think is really exciting.  These are where you never really know what’s going to come around the corner next from things like bird flu to swine flu to strange tropical diseases.  

So my general area is infectious disease but by training I’ve specialised in virology.  So we study viruses and my particular virus is the norovirus, which has been around a lot this year, it’s one that most people know and it goes by the press name of the “winter vomiting bug”.

On the norovirus

So, norovirus, even though it’s one of the less big tropical world problems is a real problem in the UK and it’s one that, even though we’ve known about it for about four decades, we still don’t have anything to treat it.  So it’s a massive challenge.  We know very little about it because we can’t really grow it so there are huge questions there that are still unanswered and it is the problem-solving aspect of trying to work out what we can do to stop it that really grabs me.

So we know a lot about the symptoms it causes, you know, it’s very severe gastroenteritis and a lot of the studies have come from just watching what happens in normal infections and even giving volunteers norovirus to see what happens.  But when it comes to the actual biology of the virus, like how it’s made up and how it gets into your cells and how it grows, this is where we really struggle.  There are massive gaps.  We don’t even really know what cells in your body it likes and that’s one of the first things you need to know to be able to design drugs to stop it getting in in the first place.

The symptoms are often quite common for most people.  It comes on very rapidly.  You get very severe projectile vomiting and diarrhoea with aches and all the usual kinds of shivers and pains you’d expect and for most people it’ll run its course in about three days, but for some really unlucky people, who tend to have compromised immune systems, you can get chronic infections with these symptoms for years and years – I think the longest known is about eight years – so in that case it’s really debilitating.

So my research has been really focused on trying to work out, if you take the virus, what are the essential bits that it needs, like, what if you kind of disrupt different parts of it, can it still function?  Because if you know what’s essential then you know exactly where to try and hit it with a drug to stop it.

The only way we really have to control it at the moment is good hygiene.  It’s really important.  The obvious things like hand washing and cleaning, but even then norovirus is quite resistant to the usual disinfectants unless they’re really sort of high chlorine.  There’s been some really, sort of, extreme cases where you can just see how infectious it is.  Like a whole football team got infected by handling a carrier bag that had been in the bathroom of someone throwing up with norovirus, so you just see how good it is at getting around.  And it also just shows how important vigilant  hygiene is.  It’s our only control measure at the moment.

So, if you get norovirus you kind of just need to quarantine yourself!  You need to stay away; it’s going to spread very easily but if you are careful with cleaning after everything and trying to not interact – although you’re probably not going to feel like going to see anyone anyway – it’s the safest way to try and stop it spreading.

On the future of virology

Thinking in my field of virology, the really big thing we need is an HIV vaccine and it’s something that people have been striving for for decades now, it’s probably the biggest, one of the biggest diseases, infectious diseases that we’re contending with at the moment, so that would be amazing.

So there is controversy around whether pharmaceuticals control the market and I guess whether they’re calling the shots at what’s developed.  In academic research in the university we work at a different level so you very rarely come into contact with that, I guess, unless you’re lucky enough to discover something that’s going to be able to go through the pipeline, in which case you need to be able to go get involved with a pharmaceutical.  I don’t think they determine the market, or the research that’s done; a lot of that’s through the funding bodies who give grants for research as well. 

On FameLab

So I did FameLab last year.  I started off, um, I’ve quite enjoyed, I’ve done Cheltenham for a few years but just as a volunteer and I’ve really enjoyed it so FameLab was almost like a next step.  I like talking about science so I thought I’d give it a go and it’s been brilliant in terms of practicing public speaking and all the rest of it.  I got through the regional heats and through to the London heats and in those I spoke about firstly norovirus and how you design a drug and then about how good flu is at mutating, which was around about the time of the swine flu pandemic.  So I was lucky enough to win the London heat and then went onto the final, which was at the Royal Institution last year, which was a brilliant experience, a really fun night, and then came runner-up, which was lucky.

FameLab has been a real help in a lot of different ways, actually.  It completely opened up the world of science communication which I guess I’d only sort of dabbled with before and I’ve met some really interesting people doing all kinds of stuff since.  For my, I guess, my day job, which is research, the skills in presentation and communication have been amazing.  So it’s really helped how I deliver presentations to a scientific audience which has been noticed because I think there’s a very set way to do things in the academic world, so if I can apply those skills it’s come up with some really good results.

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