News and Blog
This September, the administration of the Wellcome Trust Infection, Immunology and Translation Medicine (IITM) programme hosted a new symposium; the IITM Perspectives Meeting. The symposium is open to students and staff from around Oxford and aims to provide insights into state-of-the-art research areas relevant to the IITM program. This year’s symposium highlighted the impressive developments in ‘biologics as therapeutics’.
The day was kicked off by Emeritus Prof. Herman Waldmann sharing his long career insights in developing one of the first monoclonal antibody treatments. Starting from studies, several decades ago, his monoclonal antibody CAMPATH-1 went through several phases of in vitro and in vivo testing to become a therapeutic for leukaemia, lymphoma and transplant rejection. This was not an easy journey, as Waldmann described during his talk, which included struggles with pharmaceutical companies and a resilient belief in his therapeutic.
After setting the historic scene, Dr. Mariagrazia Pizza who is currently working as senior scientific director for GlaxoSmithKline, presented more recent advancements in vaccinology. She talked about novel strategies to develop new adjuvants and therapeutic vaccines against bacterial infections such as Neisseria meningitidis. Following Dr. Pizza, the new director of the medical science division Prof. Gavin Screaton offered new insights into the cross-reactivity of the immune system to dengue and Zika infection. His research revealed new potential antibody targets to fight dengue and Zika virus infections.
The morning session was then closed by Dr. Shaun Cordoba, director of synthetic biology at Autolus Therapeutics, where he works to modify T cell responses using engineered T cell receptors on their surface. His research could provide new avenues to treat cancer more specifically and effectively.
The afternoon began with a panel discussion focussing on the requirements and funding opportunities for translational research approaches. Experts from venture capital firms, such as former Oxford student Bonnie van Wilgenburg, and major research funding agencies represented by Prof. Sara Marshall of the Wellcome Trust and Adam Baggs from the Medical Research Council discussed the (mostly) pros and (fewer) cons of translational research and the integration of academic and industry research.
Giving another aspect to the field of ‘biologics as therapeutics’, Dr. Kerry Fisher (CSO at PsiOxus Therapeutics) presented his astounding research on oncolytic viruses. He showed how working in a university setting may be profitable to companies.
The last session of the day was concluded by Dr. Ausra Razanskiene (Scientific Manager at Nomads) and Prof. Richard Pleass (Liverpool University) who presented their research on plant-expressed antimicrobials and antibody glycolysation, respectively. Dr. Razanskiene’s research may provide new large-scale methods to produce cost-effective antimicrobials to fight Pseudomonas, a common pulmonary opportunistic pathogen. In contrast, Prof. Pleass’ research found that the glycosylation of the N-terminal hinge region of antibodies is an important for their multimerization.
After some concluding remarks of the IITM program director Chris Tang, speakers and IITM students could further mingle during a delicious dinner at St. Edmund Hall. After a very successful day with about 100 attendees and great presentations and discussion, we are delighted to say this symposium will be a biennial event and return to Oxford in 2020. So, stay tuned for more cutting edge infection, immunology & translational medicine.
By Felix Richter
Congratulations to IITM student Tamara Davenne on passing her DPhil viva last Friday!
Tamara undertook her research in the lab of Professor Jan Rehwinkel in the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. She investigated the metabolic role of the enzyme SAMHD1, how it regulates dNTP pools in cancer, and how this could lead to treatments for immunodeficiencies.
Well done Tamara, and good luck in your future career!
The IITM course is delighted to welcome Professor Nicole Zitzmann and Professor Jan Rehwinkel as the new co-directors. Both are established PIs on the course, and both currently have IITM students working in their labs. We are looking forward to working with Nicole and Jan over the forthcoming years, and anticipate their expert input into this course.
They are taking over the role from Professor Helen McShane, who we wish all the best in her new role as Director of the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre.
Richard Wheeler is going to become the first IITM graduate to establish his own lab. During his DPhil, which he spent under joint supervision of Keith Gull and Eva Gluenz, Richard studied the cell shape of Trypanosoma and Leishmania parasites and how their shape affects their ability to swim. Now, six years after his graduation from the IITM program, Richard was awarded with the Wellcome Trust ‘Sir Henry Dale Fellowship’ allowing him secure funding for at least 5 years to establish his own research group.
“It is absolutely fantastic to have been awarded the Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellowship; it will give me enough time and security to build a strong foundation for my own lab.” says Richard. The Sir Henry Dale Fellowship is specifically designed as the first fully independent position for postdoctoral researchers who want to become PIs. The fellowship covers laboratory expenses and one postdoctoral researcher, but those who think Richard will be stepping away from the lab bench are clearly mistaken: “I’ve got ten years of experience at the bench, including a lot of specialised technical expertise, and I think an important part of independence will be setting up a research group that builds on this.”
His new research group will be a continuation of his previous experiences and concentrate on Leishmania parasites. In particular, they will research how the parasites control swimming and how this is important in the life cycle of the parasite. Coming from a biochemical and cell biological background, he wants to put a stronger focus on the medical applications of his research while still drawing on the interdisciplinary opportunities on South Parks Road. Therefore, Richard will move with his lab to the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research.
Being a PI requires a different skill set, admits Richard: “I feel the biggest changes to run a research group are seeing the bigger picture, the long-potential of a research field, and managing people – both of which aren’t necessarily part of postdoctoral or PhD level research. In hindsight, I think the IITM program was excellent at making me broaden my scientific horizons by working with more people with different expertise. I’d recommend making the most of the IITM rotation year to meet people and widen your scientific ideas.”
The prospect of discovery and new ideas were a major driver for Richard to pursue an academic career. Many of his friends did find similar opportunities for discovery and uncovering new ideas outside of academia in areas reaching from publishing to small biotech companies. “My advice is to any young scientist who is keen on becoming a PI is that it is extremely challenging yet extremely rewarding, if you love the chance to discover new things and drive new ideas and discoveries then it is fantastic. You must be pragmatic though, it is extremely competitive and there is no point beating yourself up to pursue something that just leads to stress.”
Before Richard can make new discoveries in his own group, he first has to go through a lot of paperwork, administration and establishing workflows. Some of this work will also comprise getting included on the supervisor list for the IITM program, to teach future IITM students himself: “The IITM program is an outstanding scheme full of outstanding students, and it would be fantastic to work with any future students. My experience of the IITM program was great, and I would love to have the opportunity to pay this forward to the next generation of scientists.”
Richard will start to advertise for post-doctoral and PhD positions in the near future, but he will be happy to hear from anyone interested in parasite cell biology, microscopy and automated image analysis. You will also find Richard’s group online, a ‘beta’ website at: wheelerlab.net.
Written by Felix Richter
Congratulations to Professor Helen McShane, who has been appointed the new director of the Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). Helen has been a supervisor on the IITM programme since it began and became co-director in 2016. She will now also take on leadership of the BRC from Professor Keith Channon, who leaves to become deputy director for research of the Medical Sciences Division.
The Oxford BRC supports a research partnership between Oxford University Hospitals (OUH) NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford. Since 2007, it has secured funding in excess of £260m to support translational ‘bench-to-bedside’ research projects. The partnership combines the scientific and clinical expertise available at the University and OUH to accelerate the translation of basic scientific findings into therapeutic and interventional products which yield clinical benefits for patients.
Translational medicine is a primary focus of the IITM programme. Helen’s appointment to lead one of the largest translational medicine programmes in the country reinforces this. Opportunities to conduct translational medical research through the IITM programme are available with supervisors based in the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research, the Oxford Vaccine Group, the University’s major overseas programmes in Thailand, Vietnam and Kenya as well as the Jenner Institute, where Helen herself is based.
More information on the Oxford BRC and Helen’s appointment, can be found on their website, available here.
As a PhD student at MRC HIU, I usually spend my days in a white lab coat peering down a microscope, but this July I temporarily gave all that up to undertake a placement on the science desk at The Guardian newspaper.
Commuting through busy central London to The Guardian offices was a sharp change from my usual fifteen-minute cycle uphill to the lab in Oxford. My mentors were Ian Sample, science editor, and Hannah Devlin, science correspondent – two people I admire greatly for their unique flair for translating complex science into engaging news items.
When Ian led me into the newsroom on my first day, I was overwhelmed with excitement. The newsroom is a large, modern office with huge glass windows and rows upon rows of desks. It was somewhat messier and noisier than I had anticipated, with old books and newspapers piled up on the desks and journalists having loud phone conversations in the background. Every morning began with a meeting called ‘conference’ – the journalists’ equivalent of scientists’ laboratory meetings. Representatives from the various news desks ran through what their main stories of the day were going to be, before they became ‘news’.
At the science desk, I dived straight in. My first published article was a page 3 story on sperm and fertility, complete with a catchy headline. Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for any of the headlines on my articles as these are usually added by the sub-editors. The science writers, including me last month, pitch ideas for stories to the commissioning editor, who in turn pitches the main ideas from the science desk during a daily meeting with other editors. Once an idea is given the greenlight, the article is written and undergoes one or more rounds of editing – including the addition of a headline – before it is filed for publication.
To look for ideas, I often used EurekAlert! – an online platform run by AAAS, which collates the newest and most exciting upcoming scientific papers under embargo at various different journals. This gives journalists a heads up, so they can start putting together a news story to be released simultaneously with the paper.
During my PhD, I’m training to become an expert in a very specific subject area. Writing for The Guardian, I suddenly had to broaden my perspective and apply what I had learnt about analysing and interpreting scientific data to subject matters outside my area of expertise. Luckily, I was not alone in this endeavour. None of my articles would have been possible without valuable discussions with the experts in the relevant fields. Much like the scientific process of peer review, getting opinions about new research from one or more independent experts is an essential part of deciding whether something is worth writing about.
Something that pleasantly surprised me was how willing and happy scientists were to speak to me about their research and about the work of others, even at short notice. The reputation of The Guardian was certainly helpful in getting responses from busy professors and it was a fantastic privilege to be able to speak directly with world-leading scientific experts on an almost daily basis.
Alongside scientific robustness, I learnt that another vital ingredient in good science writing is the hook. A typical response I would get when pitching ideas to the editors was “what’s the top-line?” Summarising a complicated scientific paper in one sentence is a valuable skill, which I will definitely apply as I continue my PhD.
As a researcher who has been involved in the process of generating data for the revision of a scientific paper, I thought I was pretty familiar with working to tight deadlines. I could not have been more wrong. During my placement, I quickly learnt how to read scientific papers and write articles within a few hours. To meet deadlines, usually dictated by embargo times set by scientific journals, I also needed to promptly contact and interview the scientists who did the work, as well as independent experts. I discovered that my role as a science writer was to represent my readers rather than scientists. The readers were not there to ask their questions themselves and so it was my job to do this on their behalf. This was a massive responsibility and so asking the right questions was critical.
Sometimes, I needed to get comments from people other than scientists too. Scientific research can have far-reaching implications for society. Society, in turn, has a say on how and whether potential applications of scientific research are implemented. I will never forget the first press conference I attended. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics were about to release their comprehensive report on the social and ethical issues surrounding genome editing and reproduction. Sitting beside journalists from various media outlets it occurred to me that more people would read the news stories about the council’s report than would ever leaf through the actual 183-page document.
The reporters in the room were tasked with the responsibility of communicating the report’s key messages to a wider audience and igniting an important and necessary public debate. I believe this is a responsibility that scientists should also share. Engaging the public with the (often publicly funded) research that we do is also an important part of our jobs as scientists.
I was certainly sad to leave The Guardian science desk at the end of the month, but also extremely grateful for the phenomenal experience I had covering the latest science stories from antibiotics to aliens. My placement was part of a British Science Association Media Fellowship awarded to me earlier in the year, funded by the Society for Applied Microbiology. I would like to thank my PhD supervisor, Jan Rehwinkel, for supporting my application. My PhD is funded by the Wellcome Trust and I am based at the MRC Human Immunology Unit.
This article was originally published on the MRC WIMM blog. Available here.
In her first week on placement at The Guardian, Layal Liverpool has already published two articles in the newspaper reporting on recent scientific breakthroughs.
The first article described research, which revealed that adding a small amount of mixed nuts to a man’s diet could boost fertility by increasing the quality and quantity of sperm produced. The results are based on a clinical study recently conducted in Spain.
Layal’s second article reported on a novel ‘immunobiotic’ which could be used to fight infections. Growing antibiotic resistance is a major concern for medical researchers who are now looking for new ways of eliminating infectious microorganisms. These new findings reveal a very different mode of action compared to conventional antibiotics. They are designed to alert components of the immune system to the presence of the bacteria, which will then come along and kill them.
The placement at The Guardian is part of a British Science Association media fellowship funded by the Society for Applied Microbiology, which Layal was recently awarded. Layal is being mentored at The Guardian by Ian Sample, Science Editor and Hannah Devlin, Science Correspondent. She will spend a further 3 weeks at the newspaper, continuing to develop her journalistic skills before returning to Oxford to continue her DPhil project.
We look forward to many more exciting articles from Layal over the coming weeks! Keep track of them as they are published, here.
The Royal Society’s annual summer science exhibition took place last week (2nd-8th July) in London and a team of researchers from the University where there to present exciting advances in the race to develop a vaccine against malaria. Second year IITM student Rob Ragotte was part of the presenting team, led by Professors Matt Higgins (Dept. of Biochemistry), Simon Draper and Sumi Biswas (Jenner Institute – Nuffield Dept. of Medicine).
The team were there to talk about their most recent data on an experimental malaria vaccine. Most malaria infections in humans are caused by the parasite Plasmodium falciparum. The Draper and Biswas groups have identified as a leading malaria vaccine candidate a protein on the surface of the parasite, called RH5. The group has designed a vaccine that targets RH5, which is now being tested in humans. The Higgins group have simultaneously been working to solve the protein structure of RH5 as well as the human protein it binds to, basigin
3D printed models of RH5 and basigin were developed to explain how the vaccine works as well as two interactive games for visitors to try to identify other proteins on the parasite surface which might be suitable vaccine targets and to explore how a vaccination campaign might impact spread of disease amongst populations. An estimated 10,000 people visited the exhibition, from members of the public to MPs and eminent scientists.
They also developed a short video which summarises the key points of their research:
Further work to test the vaccine in the UK and in malaria-endemic countries is currently underway. The interactions between antibodies isolated from immunized volunteers and the RH5 protein are also being mapped to hopefully improve vaccine design and to develop novel therapeutics.
Rob undertook rotations in both the Higgins and Draper labs before settling at the Jenner Institute for his DPhil project. Rob is working to develop adeno-associated viruses as a platform to deliver monoclonal antibodies, such as those against RH5, as a gene therapy against malaria.
Final-year IITM student Corinna Kulicke features in a video aimed at teaching school children how antibodies can be used as tools in biomedical research. As part of the public engagement activities at the MRC Human Immunology Unit at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, researchers there have designed a set of tools to help teach 10-11 year-olds about science. Partnering with Abingdon Science Partnership, the team identified learning objectives in the national science curriculum they could fulfil whilst aiming to increase engagement and participation in science. The tools will hopefully be used by teachers in schools in the local area.
The tool Corinna helped to deliver is an educational video showcasing some of the ways we use antibodies in a biomedical research laboratory to help answer questions about health and disease. Antibodies are important components of the immune system, but scientists have also engineered ways to make use of them in the lab too. Corinna explores two ways; microscopy and flow cytometry, in which antibodies have helped advance science. Corinna is the main presenter in the video and interviews two experts from the MRC Human Immunology Unit at the MRC WIMM, University of Oxford.
Watch Corinna’s video here:
You can also find out more about the series of public engagement activities that have been produced, here.
Watch out Prof Brian Cox, because Corinna is after your job!
Third year IITM student, Layal Liverpool, has been awarded a prestigious BSA media fellowship, funded by the Society for Applied Microbiology. The fellowship will allow Layal to spend 2-6 weeks this summer working at a large media outlet to develop skills in science communication and journalism.
BSA Media Fellows are mentored by professional journalists and learn how the media operates and reports on science, how to communicate with the media and to engage the wider public with science through the media. Layal is yet to find out which media outlet will host her placement, however previous Fellows have worked in major organisations such as the BBC, The Guardian and Nature News.
Following their media placement, Fellows attend the British Science Festival in September, where they have the opportunity to gain valuable experience working in the BSA Press Centre alongside a range of media organisations from all over the UK.
In response to being awarded the fellowship, Layal said “I am absolutely delighted and extremely grateful for this fantastic opportunity!”.
The application process for the fellowship is extremely competitive and the IITM Programme is very proud of Layal for being selected. We hope she finds the experience fulfilling in shaping the direction of her scientific career.