We are a multidisciplinary group of immunologists, parasitologists and molecular biologists who aim to understand the molecular basis for parasites evading the sophisticated mammalian immune system. We study the most complex organisms to invade the human body - multicellular helminths - including some which cause widespread tropical diseases and which display fascinating biological properties.
We aim to integrate detailed studies at the level of individual parasite molecules, with system immunology which measures responses against not only parasites but bystander antigens such as allergens. Parasite molecules may actively counter host immunity, or act as targets for the immune response, and in either case be potential antigens for new vaccines. Our techniques combine DNA analysis and gene isolation, expression and function of proteins, and immune system biology and lymphocyte culture.
We study nematode parasites because they display remarkable biological properties and are tractable at a molecular and cellular level. For example, the filarial nematode is transmitted by mosquito and infects 120 million people in developing countries. Parasites can live for 5 years or more, acting as successful tissue transplants. If we can analyse how they achieve this feat, we may discover important new pathways to control both parasites and the immune system.
In particular, we are now testing the hypothesis that helminth parasites exploit the body's own safety mechanisms which have evolved to minimise the risk of autoimmunity. For example, regulatory T cells naturally arise to limit autoreactivity, but are also associated with chronic helminth infection. The expansion of regulatory T cell populations may underlie the epidemiological association between infection and reduced levels of allergy.
We are in bright, spacious and well-equipped labs in the Institute of Immunology and Infection Research (3IR), on the Kings Buildings campus of Edinburgh University. The group occupies a suite of labs with tissue culture facilities and equipment areas containing freezers, incubators etc, supplemented with gel electrophoresis and PCR instruments. On nearby floors are automated sequencing, flow cytometry and microscopy facilities. There is (some) office space included in the research area, together with a library/breakout space. The lab is fairly heavily computerised and every member of the group has dedicated access to their own computer.
As might be expected for a parasite immunology group, we also have facilities to maintain life cycles of the organisms which we study. There is a mosquito colony which harbours Brugia malayi, while other nematodes (Heligmosomoides polygyrus, Nippostrongylus brasiliensis, Toxocara canis) are contained within the laboratory.
We work closely with many other researchers at 3IR and in Edinburgh. The groups of Judith Allen, Francisca Mutapi and Matt Taylor (immunology of parasites) and Mark Blaxter (parasite genomics) are in adjacent labs, and we share many ideas, reagents, equipment and even students. Labs in protozoal molecular biology (Keith Matthews, Alex Rowe, Joanne Thompson) and in basic immunology (David Gray, Andrew MacDonald, Rose Zamoyska) are just one floor away.