Food and marine could hold molecules for stronger immune system

9 Aug 2013

Dr Christine Loscher, senior lecturer at Dublin City University's School of Biotechnology. Image via Dublin City University

Dr Christine Loscher is on a mission to discover molecules that can tune the immune system for better health. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about mining into food and marine sources for new ‘immunomodulating’ ingredients, and the importance of building relationships with industry.

I’m currently helping Loscher’s group prepare manuscripts for publications, and I’m struck by the breadth of their approach to understanding how the immune system responds to threat, and also how molecules from food and other sources can potentially change the immune response. 

“I am interested in anything that can affect the immune response in a way that could be beneficial,” explains Loscher, who is a senior lecturer at Dublin City University’s School of Biotechnology.

She’s not the only one with an interest. In recent years, the immune system has become a focus for researchers around the world, because if your immune system isn’t happy your health will soon suffer: you might not be able to clear an infection, you might have an allergic reaction or you might develop inflammation linked to chronic disease.

Loscher has spent much of her career looking for agents that trigger or alter immune responses, and has recently been focusing on mining into food and marine sources to find ‘bioactive’ molecules that can dampen down inflammation, or maybe even help overcome allergies.

Lighting the fire

Her interest in the immune system was first sparked as an undergraduate, when she got to work with Prof Cliona O’Farrelly, then at St Vincent’s University Hospital. Loscher looked at types of immune cells called T-cells in the appendix and got hooked on the wider subject. “That lit my fire for immunology,” she recalls. 

From there she moved to another fire, of sorts, working on how vaccines can trigger fever as a side effect with Prof Kingston Mills, then at NUI Maynooth, and Prof Marina Lynch at Trinity College Dublin.

Then Loscher became interested in how food affects our immune system, and she started working with Prof Helen Roche in the area of ‘nutrigenomics’. “I started to look at how food impacts on the immune system,” explains Loscher. “We showed that a fatty acid called CLA – which you find in meat and milk – was able to modulate immune cell function, and we worked out some of the mechanisms behind that.”

Food ingredients for health

Food has become a major focus in Loscher’s lab now – she is a researcher in the Food for Health Ireland consortium, an Enterprise Ireland-supported initiative that links academics with major Irish dairy and ingredients companies to mine milk and other foods for potential bioactives.

“We want to find ingredients that modulate immunity and can be put into commercial products for health benefit,” she explains. “The biggest proof of principal that people buy into this are probiotics and the fish oils – you can add ingredients for health benefit into food and there is a market for it.”

Through FHI, Loscher has started to work with researchers at Teagasc, Moorepark to look for ingredients that could help infants with milk allergies. She is also relishing the increasing interaction with the commercial partners. 

“FHI has really exposed me to a lot of companies that were interested in innovative ingredients that could have a health impact,” says Loscher, who is now working not only with major Irish companies but also their global customers. “Relationships with companies take a long time to nurture, but when you establish that relationship and can work well, you deliver and the relationship gets so much easier.”

She has also been looking to the sea for immune-changing molecules, and sees this is a growing area. Working with scientists from University College Dublin and NUI Galway, Loscher recently tracked down a bioactive in a species of alga from Irish waters. “We started with a crude marine mash and ended up with a single anti-inflammatory molecule that we were also able to make synthetically, it was great,” she says. “This is now the subject of a commercialisation project, which means we may one day see the finding translate into a drug for patients with a range of inflammatory diseases.”

Understanding the immune response

While the hunt for bioactives has an obvious commercial slant, Loscher is also keen to keep a more fundamental aspect to her research, too. Her lab is teasing out how the immune system reacts to Clostridium difficile, a bacterial ‘superbug’ that can cause serious illness in vulnerable patients when it overgrows in the gut. The research has already discovered how outer proteins from C. difficile can trigger immune responses and Loscher believes it’s important to work out these fundamental mechanisms.  

“If we want to manage C. diff better or how we minimise the risk of a patient getting C. diff we have to understand it properly,” she says. “And while there might not be a short-term commercial output, I think it’s extremely important that we are continue trying to figure out how our immune system interacts with disease-causing organisms, because ultimately that information could be translated into a new vaccine or drug.”

Aside from her lab research, Loscher also directs the BioAT structured PhD programme, and she is to be the academic lead in a new Nano-Bioanalytical Research Facility being built on the DCU campus. “It’s a new core facility for very specialised equipment that will really enhance the breadth of DCU’s research abilities,” she explains. “And it will help to build more links between health and technology research.”

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