Have you wondered if playing in the dirt is good for our immune system? How do tapeworms work? This Friday we are interview Dr Sheena Cruickshank – an expert on immune systems. Comment below with your own questions and come back Friday for the answers!
Faculty scientists have made a crucial discovery about an immune cell which is used in immunotherapies to treat diseases like type I diabetes.
Dr Mark Travis led a team from the Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research who studied regulatory T-cells – important immune cells that prevent harmful immune responses. Their research concentrated on how these T-cells can help cure inflammatory diseases.
Generally, T-cells fight infections and are most useful when acting against foreign invaders in the body like pathogens. However, some T-cells react with our own tissues and cause damage – this is the basis for auto immune diseases like type I diabetes. This is where the regulatory T-cells come in. They help to fight against these rogue T-cells, preventing them causing damage to the body’s own tissue.
Regulatory T-cells are currently being used in clinical trials to help fight auto immune disease. The cells are taken from the patient, multiplied and then given back to them. This helps to suppress their illness.
The team have identified an important pathway by which the regulatory T-cells are activated to suppress the harmful T-cells during inflammation. Dr Travis explains:
“This knowledge is vitally important when trying to make regulatory T-cells for therapy. By knowing the importance of this pathway, we can now work to improve the suppressive nature of regulatory T-cells to make them more effective as treatments for disorders such as type I diabetes and organ transplant rejection.”
“It’s fascinating that getting rid of just one molecule can have such an impact on the body’s ability to fight disease. Our research is all about how the molecules interlink and react to each other, and in certain situations targeting just one molecule can boost or inhibit a response.”
The Faculty team demonstrated that the molecules are expressed in both humans and animals. The next step for them is to look at how the mechanism works in practice , using Inflammatory Bowel Disease as a model.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking to researchers in the Tuesday Feature so far. It’s been fascinating. But, so far there’s been little mention of those people in the background who make the research possible.
So today we chat with Roberta Oliviera, a Research Technician in the Manchester Immunology Group. She tells us a bit about her role, her inspirations, and how she got to where she is today.
Hi Roberta. Could you tell us a little bit about being a research technician? What does your day-to-day involve?
My role in the University is to provide support for other academics and students with their research.
Technicians sometimes run their own projects and report the results to the supervisor and at other times they can support to researchers running specific experiments or techniques. We also help with students and their projects.
I suppose we run the upkeep of the lab, the organisation, and the smaller functions like that.
What about the researchers you work with and the research you do? What is being studied?
Professor Grencis is looking at the immune responses against the whipworm. He looks at the balance of the immune response in an individual and what dictates whether that individual is susceptible or resistant to infection.
When you look at parasitic infections and their responses, you learn a lot about the immune system. We can always apply those lessons to other things such as cancer, auto immune diseases, and allergies.
How did you first get interested in science? Or in particular, this research area?
I did my undergraduate degree in pharmacy back in Brazil.
Working in the care industry in a developing country can be daunting so I wanted to do some work in the background and learn more about tropical diseases.
Every woman in science is a bit of a hero – especially the ones trying to raise a family alongside building their career. That’s a challenge I’m facing myself.
If I had to give a name I’d have to go with Marie Curie, obviously. She had a very strong work ethic and she was very generous with her work colleagues.
So I’d say Marie Curie.
Could you tell us a little bit about your interests outside of science?
I like reading. I like British and American authors and use it as an opportunity to learn a bit more about the Anglophone culture since I didn’t grow up in the UK.
But, because I have a baby son, I have to admit that currently my activities involve play dates and play groups.
Working in Manchester is amazing. I think mainly the people – they’re very happy, friendly, and helpful.
I think The University of Manchester is ideally what you’d expect academia to be – everyone is very creative and very helpful. It’s a democratic environment to work in.
I think working at the Manchester Immunology Group is very nice because we have cutting edge research going on and amazing scientists in our group. Since I started working here, I have felt at home and made lots of friends, so what else I could ask for?
And what more we could we ask for from an interviewee? Thanks, Roberta. A fascinating insight from a slightly different perspective – invaluable information that’s made us want to talk to more ‘tekkies’ in the future.
But it’s another slightly different perspective next week as we chat to Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Professor Amanda Bamford. Amanda has put research aside to focus on her new role and her teaching, so we’ll be finding out what helped her make that decision.
We hope you’ll join us!
Interview by Fran Slater and Kory Stout, Videos by Theo Jolliffe, Images by Nick Ogden
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
Faculty scientist Professor Daniel Davis says that scientific jargon could be preventing the public from learning about the human immune system. He believes that scientists are starting to counter this problem in a number of innovative ways.
His latest paper, published in Nature Reviews Immunology, argues that now is the time for immunology to become the big trend in popular science, helping to inform new discussions about health and disease. Professor Davis said:
“People already know a lot about DNA and evolution and would be keen to learn new concepts – like how the immune system works. It’s important to find out about immunology because it is crucial for understanding human health and disease. Plus, the human body is one of the greatest wonders of the universe, and its complexity, delicacy, and elegance is clearly revealed in the way our immune system works.”
Immunology explores how our immune system seeks out and destroys dangerous bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It also examines how the immune system connects with other bodily systems and influences, such as metabolism and hormone levels.
Professor Davis explored immunology and its link with compatibility genes is his latest book, The Compatibility Gene. He said:
“The immune system is a wonderful basis for discussing the importance of human diversity. The genes that vary the most between individual people are not those that influence physical characteristics — such as skin, eye or hair colour, for example — but the genes of the immune system.”