Rik de Swart graduated as biologist in 1990, obtained his PhD in 1995 and established his own research group at the department of Viroscience at the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. Since May 2021 he is employed as virologist at Wageningen Bioveterinary Research in Lelystad (0.8 FTE), but also remains affiliated as associate professor at the Erasmus MC (0.2 FTE).
At WBVR Rik is involved in projects focusing on the pathogenesis of animal morbilliviruses (e.g. Peste des Petits Ruminants Virus, PPRV) and pneumoviruses (e.g. Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus, BRSV). In addition, he is involved in the Next Level Animal Sciences project on Complex Cell Systems and the ERRAZE@WUR project. In these projects, primary or stem cell-based human airway epithelial cell culture systems from different host species are used as model systems for characterisation of respiratory viruses that are considered threats to animal health, or that pose a zoonotic threat to humans. These differentiated epithelial cells cultured at air-liquid interface form a far better model system for the mammalian respiratory trac than immortalized cell lines, and can in some cases replace studies in experimental animals.
At Erasmus MC the research of Rik de Swart focuses on dissecting the pathogenesis of morbilliviruses (in particular measles virus and canine distemper virus) and pneumoviruses (in particular human respiratory syncytial virus and human metapneumovirus), zooming in on interactions between these viruses and the host immune system. A recurring research theme of his group is the identification of correlates of protection or disease. He uses recombinant viruses expressing fluorescent reporter proteins in vitro (in cell culture models) and in vivo (in animal models) to identify infected cells with high sensitivity.
His group identified the main target cells of measles virus during the early and late stages of disease. In addition, a model was developed that can explain the measles paradox: the virus simultaneously induces immune activation and immune suppression. His research group showed that measles virus preferentially infects and depletes memory cells of the immune system, leading to "Immune amnesia". During the COVID-19 pandemic his group became actively involved in development of animal models, assessment of SARS-CoV-2-specific cellular immune responses and development of a prophylactic fusion inhibitory lipopeptide for intranasal delivery.