Trawling the vast ocean for molecular treasure

28 Sep 2018

Prof Christine Loscher speaking at TEDx DCU in 2016. Image: TEDx DCU/Flickr (All rights reserved)

Prof Christine Loscher is fishing for new molecules from the ocean to tame the immune system’s inflammatory response. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

The ocean is a vastly unexplored territory – who knows what kind of molecular treasure could be floating around there? For Prof Christine Loscher, looking for bioactive molecules in the ocean makes sense, and the trawl is turning up some promising candidates for tackling inflammatory disease.

“The ocean environment is very different chemically from the land environment, and it supports a huge wealth of living organisms, so you get lots of molecules from ocean sources that you don’t find elsewhere,” said Loscher, who is based at the School of Biotechnology in Dublin City University (DCU). “We are interested to see if these molecules could be useful for humans.”

A state of inflammation

Loscher is particularly interested in how such molecules could affect the immune system, because of its crucial role in so many conditions and diseases. “We think about the immune system as being there to fight off disease, and it is,” she explained. “But sometimes the immune system also gets triggered into a state of chronic inflammation, and this is associated with lots of different conditions including rheumatoid arthritis, dermatitis and even some forms of cancer.”

That’s why Loscher’s lab in DCU is searching for bioactive molecules from the living world that can affect the immune system. “We want to be able to turn down that type of inflammation if it is causing a problem,” she explained.

Oceans of potential

The ocean offers, well, an ocean of opportunities for such molecules, and Loscher’s group has been sifting through fish waste and seaweeds in the search for potential immune-modulating molecules.

One of their finds to date is a molecule derived from a seaweed that can block inflammation in a usefully specific way. “We worked with chemists in UCD and we managed to pin down this single compound with the potential to calm inflammation,” said Loscher, who in 2014 was named among’s Women Invent 100.

“Then, we were able to show in the lab that it works by stopping a protein called MAL, which is key for this kind of inflammatory immune response. So, it has the advantage of stopping the inflammatory pathway that causes trouble, but at the same time it doesn’t stop the other immune system pathways that fight off infection.”

Skin test

The chemical structure of this compound suggested it might lend itself to being applied in a cream, so Loscher had a cream formulated that could deliver the compound on to skin. “We decided to look and see if it would be useful against atopic dermatitis, because this is a condition where inflammation plays a big role,” she said. “And we were able to show in pre-clinical trials that it did reduce the rash and dryness, the symptoms of dermatitis.”   

Now, the compound-laden cream is heading into a trial to compare its effectiveness with conventional steroidal creams that are used to treat atopic dermatitis. “We hope our approach will be able to tackle the dermatitis without the side effects of steroidal creams, which can thin the skin,” said Loscher. “We would see a broad application for the compound in both human and animal health, and ultimately we would like to see it helping babies with atopic dermatitis.” 

Inspiring talk

Loscher was inspired to go into research when, during her studies at Dublin Institute of Technology, she had the opportunity to work with immunologist Prof Cliona O’Farrelly, then at St Vincent’s University Hospital. 

“After a few weeks, I realised these people were working on things no one had ever worked on, and I got an understanding of the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of research,” she recalled. “Research became my thing and I went on to do a PhD in Maynooth.”

Today, as associate dean of research in DCU, she encourages researchers to get out and speak about their work. Setting a good example with her TEDx DCU talk on foods of the future, she has also been a driving force behind Researchfest, a session at Inspirefest where researchers give short talks about their work.

“It’s important for researchers at every level to share what they are doing,” she said. “And it’s a great exercise to make you look at your research from new perspectives, too.”  

Prof Christine Loscher speaking at TEDx DCU in 2016. Image: TEDx DCU/Flickr (All rights reserved)

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication