Transplanting science - bringing together basic biology and clinical care
The outcomes of research at the Babraham Institute have the potential to improve healthcare and inform patient treatments. But exactly how and where is this happening? One example, is in Dr Michelle Linterman’s group through a research collaboration with Dr Gavin Pettigrew’s team at the Clinical School in Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Together they have set out to understand what happens when the body’s immune system rejects transplanted organs.
This powerful partnership came together through a common interest in how cells in the immune system called B cells respond to transplants. Dr Pettigrew explains that, “the B cell response is pivotal in determining the long term success of a transplant”. He was keen to work with researchers in the area and the Babraham Institute seemed like an ideal partner. Initially our expert knowledge of basic biology concepts helped him to develop a better understand his own observations in the clinic. These discussions went further and they have now resulted in a full research collaboration. Both groups share models and data that are revealing new information about how the body responds to transplants.
The Institute has provided sophisticated animal models that allow the researchers to understand the roles of different parts of the immune system in transplants more quickly and comprehensively than would be possible from observation of human patients. In return, Dr Pettigrew’s team collect samples from transplant patients that the Institute’s scientists can use to better analyse the details of the B cell response in humans.
By studying both human samples and animal models, this research has been able to rapidly develop, test and confirm ideas about how the human body responds to organ transplants. This has helped to highlight weaknesses in the immune system that could be targeted through treatment to help improve the success of transplants in the hospital. Gavin continues; “The B cell response is very complex but our collaboration and joint research means that we can now better understand this process in transplant patients”.
He adds, “The outcomes of the work were both surprising and counterintuitive but were reinforced when Michelle and I reported similar findings in both humans and animals. This collaboration has resulted in some innovative and thought-provoking new areas of research for both the Babraham Institute and our team at Addenbrooke’s.”
This collaboration highlights the benefits of cross-disciplinary research and the importance of working together early in the research lifecycle. Moving fundamental biological research to the clinic is a very long process and it is often hard to predict the outcomes. Working together with clinicians to validate lab results at every stage could be an effective way to improve success when it comes to translating research to the clinic later on. From a clinical perspective, Dr Pettigrew tells us that clinicians are keen to work more collaboratively and there are now better tools, techniques and funding mechanisms in place to allow clinical researchers the opportunity to test findings from animal models in samples from human volunteers.
The partnership between Dr Linterman and Dr Pettigrew is still in its infancy but the possible long-term impacts are exciting. Their research has the potential to increase transplant success rates and improve outcomes for thousands of patients. With transplant numbers rising rapidly and more than 3,500 transplants taking place in the UK in 2015/16, the success of these operations is of great importance.
Dr Pettigrew is cautious however, and recognises the need to think clearly about the results of the collaboration in order to make the most of translating this work to the clinic. The most likely course of action will be a joint application for funding to progress this study as an area of research. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that this is just the beginning of a partnership that could last many years…