Don’t be immune to the benefits of thinking beyond your field

Prof Christine Loscher, School of Biotechnology, Dublin City University

Christine, your research looks at the immune system, why?

The way we think about the immune system has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades. We know the immune system is there to protect us from things that might make us sick, like disease-causing bacteria and viruses, and when we think of the immune system we might automatically think of things like our bodies fighting off tummy bugs and flu. But there are lots of other ways that the immune system affects our health.

Like what?

One of the ways the immune system helps protect us against infectious agents or after we have had an injury is a process called inflammation. Think about when you cut your finger – after a while it can get red and swollen, or inflamed, which is a sign that the immune system is hard at work, getting cells there to help to keep the site safe and to get healing started. But inflammation isn’t always good for us, particularly if it is chronic. That kind of long-term inflammation can be linked to various conditions like eczema, diabetes, heart disease and even Alzheimer’s disease. That’s now a huge area of research.


What does your own research look at?

I’m interested in how we can control the immune system, and particularly how to control that long-term, damaging inflammation. I look for molecules that have an effect on the immune system, and how we can add those molecules to foods or to creams in order to get them where they need to work.

Where do you find these immune-changing molecules?

At the moment I’m looking at two different sources. The first is marine sources, such as seaweed or fish. Life in the ocean is full of what we call “bioactive” molecules that can have effects on living systems, including our bodies.

A big chunk of my research is about finding molecules from these marine sources, isolating them and testing them in the lab to see if and how they can act on the immune system. The second is dairy proteins, as I'm part of a technology centre called Food for Health Ireland. Here I look at bioactives in milk that can modulate the immune system.

Can you give us an example?

One of the projects I’m working on focuses on a molecule derived from seaweed. My lab was able to isolate this molecule and figure out biochemically how it tones down the kind of inflammation you don’t want, but it doesn’t obliterate the entire immune response.

We have worked with colleagues in University College Dublin to make a chemically stable form of the molecule and it has been put into a specially designed skin cream. We have just finished testing it to see how it compares with steroid creams for eczema, and it now has great potential to be able to calm the symptoms of eczema without the side effects normally associated with steroid creams, such as thinning of the skin.

What other projects are you working on?

A lot of my research collaborates with industry, and part of that is through Food for Health Ireland Technology Centre, where we are looking at bioactive molecules derived from dairy sources. In that work, I’m particularly interested in how those bioactives can help to control the immune system in a way that protects against allergies and maintains muscle health as we get older.

On the face of it, you might not think of the immune system and your muscles being connected, but the more we look at the body, the more we see the immune system being involved in many different things.

What do you wish innovators thought about, generally?

I think it’s important to realise that just because you are looking at one system, the impact of your work may not be limited to that system. That’s one of the really exciting aspects for me, the fact that my expertise on immune cells could fit so well into tackling several different aspects of human and veterinary health.