Professor Dan Davis has had a startling career so far. In the last year or so his first book, The Compatibility Gene, has received rave reviews and was even chosen as one of the Guardian’s books of the year by legendary author Bill Bryson. We’re reading it at the minute, and we urge you to pick up a copy.
Naturally, we’re honoured to be interviewing Dan for this week’s Tuesday Feature. Always the interesting speaker, we hope you enjoy finding out a little bit more about his work, his inspirations, and his life. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Could you please describe your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
My research is about imaging what happens when immune cells bump into other cells and they try to decide whether these other cells are diseased or healthy.
We use very high-powered microscopes to watch that process in great detail. In fact, we use super resolution microscopes, a kind of microscope that won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year. They look, in unprecedented detail, at precisely what happens when the immune cell is deciding whether another cell is healthy or diseased.
By watching that process, there are two things that we can learn. We can watch which molecules are really important in that recognition process and we can understand how that recognition works. As well as that, as well as watching in great detail how the process works, we can also use these microscopes in a very explorative way, as they are inherently an explorative tool.
Just by looking at what happens, we actually discover some quite unexpected phenomena about how immune cells behave.
I guess there are many ways in which this research could help the general public.
Let me give you a very specific example. One of the things that we’ve discovered is that when an immune cell is going to kill a cancer cell it secretes these packets of molecules up from inside of the immune cell and then they come out of the immune cell and those molecules enter into the cancer cell and kill it. One of the long-standing problems in understanding that process in detail is how those molecules get through what is called a meshwork of actins.
Underneath the surface of the immune cell there’s a meshwork of proteins that you can think of as a bit like the inside of a tennis racquet. That sort of scaffolding is important to give the cell its shape and allow it to move. But then, if it’s like the inside of a tennis racquet, how are those big packets of molecules able to squeeze through the squares of the racquet.
We showed that, in effect, the squares get a bit bigger to allow that killing process to happen.
Now we’ve also discovered that drugs can manipulate that process to allow it to happen more efficiently. This might be important because seeing how those drugs work, in allowing cancer cells to be dealt with more efficiently, could give new ideas for how to make new kinds of drugs in the future.
Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?
You know, I’ve always been interested in science. Since the age of four I’ve been told I always wanted to be a scientist.
Initially, I wanted to study physics because it’s about laws that govern how the whole universe works, and what could be more fundamental than that. And then later in my career, after my PhD in physics, I thought that the contributions I could make to the area of physics I was in would probably be a bit esoteric. I thought I could probably make a bigger contribution if I went to study how life works instead.
So I went to the US to Harvard University and did a post-doc in Immunology, to apply what I did know to thinking about how the immune system works.
‘Science heroes’ is a difficult concept.
I wrote this book called The Compatibility Gene and part of that was about me looking at the sixty-year long journey we’ve had to understand how the immune system works.
One of the things I got from that was that when you look at people who have discovered truly amazing, wonderful things in science, when you look into their lives in great detail – they have made huge sacrifices. They didn’t necessarily have the life that I would want for myself.
So there are role models, people have done wonderful amazing things. But I’m proud of what I’m doing and where I’m going and I think heroes in science are quite a difficult concept.
Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?
I have two kids aged 10 and 12 so a lot of my time is filled with playing football in the garden and stuff.
Also, I like to draw.
And I think my main passion at the moment is in writing, the way I can contribute to society and culture in general through writing. My first book is out with Penguin, and I’m working on writing more.
How has working here benefited your research?
I used to be the head of Immunology at Imperial College, London, South Kensington and I moved to Manchester about two years ago now. It has been great for me to see the difference between the two institutes and actually, I love them both. They both have pros and cons and there are some differences.
Crucially, one of the things that I’m doing now in Manchester is acting as Director of Research for a centre that’s in collaboration with the pharmaceutical companies GSK and AstraZeneca. That is very interesting to me, as effectively that interaction just nudges some parts of my research programme to be in areas that are more directly applicable to things that are of interest to that industry.
We might be looking at fundamental processes in immune cells, looking in great detail at how the surface of an immune cell looks, and they just slightly nudge our lab to then apply those ideas and technologies to look at things that might be of more direct importance to medicine.
Thanks, Dan. That’s another fascinating insight into a Faculty member, and it’s great to hear how the work our staff carries out could have impacts across society.
Thanks again for reading – and please let us know if you’re enjoying the series. There’s a bit of a different angle to next week’s Tuesday Feature as we chat with Research Technician Roberta Oliveira. Hope to see you then!
Interview by Fran Slater, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden