Unpicking immune disorders with a little presidential help
The immune system is pretty useful for keeping us safe from invading bugs, but why does it sometimes turn tail and attack the body’s own tissues? Finding out the answers could offer clues about how to better diagnose or even eventually treat auto-immune conditions.
Two such projects were highlighted at Áras an Uachtaráin earlier this month when President Michael D Higgins met recipients of the President of Ireland Young Researcher Awards, otherwise known as PIYRAs.
Funded through Science Foundation Ireland, PIYRAs offer researchers support for five years to set up a group to investigate a particular area, and for these two awards, the immune system looms large.
Dr Patrick Walsh is trying to figure out what could lead to the loss of “self-tolerance” by the immune system in conditions such as psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. “I’m interested in what happens to the immune system that would make it attack your own tissues,” says Walsh, who holds the post Ussher/PIYRA lecturer in paediatric immunology at Trinity College Dublin. In particular, he’s looking at the molecular brakes that we normally apply to our immune systems to stop them attacking our own tissues, and how those controls might change in auto-immunity.
While the work is currently at the “early discovery” stage, the ultimate aim is to better understand such changes and possibly develop new ways of tweaking the immune system in auto-immune disease, he says.
Walsh was previously based in the US and, with the PIYRA in hand, he has been working for the last two years on the project at the National Children’s Research Centre in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin. “The hope is that the PIYRA is a consolidation phase and it will allow me to bring in more funding, hopefully from outside of Ireland,” he says.
Meanwhile, Prof Mark Little is using his PIYRA to develop research into ANCA vasculitis, a disorder of blood vessels that can affect the lungs, kidneys, nerves, skin and brain.
About 1,000 people are currently living with the chronic, relapsing condition in Ireland, according to Little, who is professor of nephrology at Trinity and a consultant nephrologist at Tallaght and Beaumont Hospitals.
“About a quarter of the [PIYRA] grant is to support the development of a registry and a biobank to cover the whole country,” he says. “The idea is that we try and pool the experiences of all the clinicians around the country [dealing with this condition] and that we obtain samples, blood, tissue, urine samples to allow us to study it.”
Little, who was previously at University College London, is also building up the research at the Trinity Health Kidney Centre, using a model that mimics the disease and that can help to identify which components of the immune system are malfunctioning.
One aim is to investigate potential new biomarkers in the urine that could be used to better diagnose when a person with the condition is relapsing. “[We want] to work out simple non-invasive markers to tell us when the disease is active,” he says.