New horizons for immunology
New group leaders bring new skills, new expertise and new perspectives, and 2018 saw three new group leaders join the Institute’s Immunology programme. Professor Adrian Liston, Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida and Dr Sarah Ross talk about their research, their ambitions and what makes the Institute such a special place to work.
They come from VIB in Belgium and the universities of Oxford and Dundee, they focus on different areas of immunology and bring new interests and expertise, but Professor Adrian Liston, Dr Claudia Ribeiro de Almeida and Dr Sarah Ross are all hugely excited to have recently joined the Institute.
Liston, already an established group leader, works on the specialist population of immune cells known as CD4 T cells. These cells effectively coordinate and ‘turbo charge’ our immune response. They are also the cells that are targeted by HIV, explaining why the disease causes immune system suppression and illustrating how crucial CD4 T cells are to our overall health.
At VIB, Liston specialised in translational immunology, understanding and then developing ways to treat children with rare immune diseases. “These diseases are incredibly severe, but once you understand them mechanistically you can work out ways to treat them,” he explains. “It was very rewarding because these kids that would otherwise often die can go on to lead long, healthy lives once you’ve found out what’s wrong and how to fix it.”
At the Institute, Liston wants to answer three key questions: how the millions of CD4 T cells in our bodies communicate and cooperate; how they switch between a ramping up and damping down cell type; and what they do in our tissues. Understanding how these cells modulate our immune system means that they can potentially be used as a tool to fine tune the immune system to help overcome age-related decline.
With its world-leading Immunology programme and cutting-edge facilities the Institute is a great fit for Liston’s ambitions. But what sets the Institute apart is how it nurtures scientific innovation and champions equality and inclusion.
“Great research requires fantastic people who think as differently as possible, which means having an environment that celebrates equality and inclusion. The Institute has a great reputation for this internationally – it’s setting the gold standard for equality and inclusion. You can feel the difference here,” says Liston. “The Institute provides an environment where you’re going to be stimulated and have the chance to explore the limits of your imagination.”
Ribeiro de Almeida and Ross both believe the Institute’s culture will help them build their first research groups. “It’s a very friendly, supportive environment. Everyone is ready to help with time and feedback – they want you to succeed and that’s really special,” says Ross.
Ribeiro de Almeida’s work centres on B lymphocytes and the rare ability they have to rearrange antibody genes by cutting and pasting DNA in order to fight the plethora of pathogens to which we are exposed. “I’m interested in understanding how this mechanism is regulated throughout cell development,” she explains. “It’s a fundamental question, because mistakes in this process can result in leukaemia and lymphoma. To understand these diseases and wider age-related immune dysfunction it’s important to understand how these molecular mechanisms are regulated.”
As a postdoc in Oxford, she worked in a lab that studied gene expression rather than B cells, so she brings a more molecular approach to the programme. She also discovered an RNA-binding protein that plays an important part in B lymphocytes’ cut and paste process, something she’s keen to follow up: “The research I want to do next is to identify which proteins are implicated in this mechanism of gene rearrangement and how they modulate B cell responses.”
Ross specialises in T lymphocytes and the impact that hypoxia – or low levels of oxygen – has on the way they work. Because T cells commonly encounter hypoxic environments, they can adapt to low oxygen environments by changing the proteins they express. While this helps them survive, it can also make them less effective killers of disease cells.
“I want to understand how oxygen regulates T cells from a signalling and gene expression perspective,” she explains. “If we could identify factors that we could target therapeutically to overcome the effects of low oxygen and boost the ability of T cells to perform their protective function, that would be amazing.”
We know that as we age, our immune system becomes less effective and poorer oxygenation is also connected with ageing, so what Ross discovers about hypoxia could have important implications, both for our understanding of the ageing immune system and in making immunotherapies more successful.
The arrival of all three is an exciting opportunity for the Institute, the Immunology programme and its three new group leaders. “It’s amazing – I’m still pinching myself,” Ross concludes. “It’s great to be able to make new plans and work out how to turn them into reality utilising the know-how and the facilities we have access to here. And it’s exciting to be here because my plans cover all three programmes – Immunology, Signalling and Epigenetics – adding my own to all the expertise here makes it hugely exciting.”
This feature was written by Becky Allen for the Annual Research Report 2018.