Seeking to stop ‘Staph’ infections and superbugs in their tracks

Research Lives: Dr Rachel McLoughlin, assistant professor in immunology at TCD School of Biochemistry and Immunology and Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute

Dr Rachel McLoughlin at the research bench in TCD. Photograph: Jason Clarke

Dr Rachel McLoughlin at the research bench in TCD. Photograph: Jason Clarke


You look at how the body reacts to a very common bacterium. Can you explain why?

I’m interested in a bacterium called Staphylococcus (“Staph”) aureus or SA. it’s my favourite microbe, I’ve been studying it for about 12 years now! It’s a really common bug that lives harmlessly on our skin or in our noses a lot of the time, but if it gets into the wrong place inside the body it can cause serious infection. There is also an antibiotic-resistant form of it that’s a very well known and problematic “superbug”: MRSA. My lab is looking at ways the body’s immune system reacts to SA in order to help us develop better protections against SA and MRSA infections.

How will looking at the immune system help us to fight these infections?

Antibiotics have limited potential, even with new antibiotics the bacteria can develop resistance. So there’s a push to develop alternative approaches, such as boosting our own immune systems, which would mean we have stronger internal mechanisms to fight infection. But in order to do that, we need to understand how the immune system attacks the infections in the first place, and this will help us in the design of vaccines to boost the immune response to prevent infection.

What have you been finding out about the immune response to SA?

We have found that a type of immune cell called a T Helper cell type 1, or Th1 cell, seems to be really important for telling other types of cells, phagocytes, to “eat” the bacterium and so kill it. We can see this in the lab, and now we are getting samples from infected patients to see if it applies clinically too.

Last month you won the Science Foundation Ireland Early Career Researcher Award, how did that feel?

I was really delighted, thrilled. Research is a tough business, it’s a long game, and the rewards do come but they don’t come regularly. I have been fortunate over the years to win grants from the Health Research Board, the Wellcome Trust and Science Foundation Ireland, and when you secure a grant to support your lab, or when you get a paper published it feels great. But to get this award is different again. It’s a recognition of what I have achieved so far in my career and it’s lovely to have that.

Speaking of your career, how did you start in research?

After my degree in pharmacology in University College Dublin I did a PhD and post-doctoral research in Cardiff in Wales, looking at how white blood cells move during inflammation. When that finished I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in academia, I suppose I had a bit of a wobble. But I got invited to work with a professor at Harvard University, so I decided I had to give that a try and I ended up working there for five years before coming back to Ireland to set up my lab in Trinity.

What is your advice to school students who are thinking about studying science at college?

You need to study something you are interested in, and I think a broad science degree can help you figure out what interests you in science. It can be really hard to choose subjects for the Leaving Cert or fill in your CAO form. I always tell people try not to put too much pressure on yourself to know what you will be doing in the future, take the opportunities as they arise, fully commit to what you are doing now, work hard and you will find your way.