Award-winning biologist Dr Annie Curtis of RCSI writes about her experiences of trying to understand our immune system.
So much of our health and wellbeing is driven by our immune system, yet our understanding of how it works and the nuances in which it can bring us harm are little understood.
However, times are changing and, gradually, researchers are piecing together bits of evidence, indicating that it plays an even greater part in our lives than we might first imagine.
One of those is Dr Annie Curtis the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) who has made enormous strides in this field.
Last week (12 December), she was among a team of researchers to publish findings suggesting that the severity of autoimmune symptoms might be dependent on how your body clock is ticking along.
Maintaining a good body clock is generally believed to lead to good health for humans, and disrupting the circadian rhythm has been associated with immune diseases – however, the underlying molecular links have been unclear.
The breakthrough was made during tests with lab mice, which showed that the master circadian gene – BMAL1 – is responsible for sensing and acting on time-of-day cues to suppress inflammation.
Earlier this year, Curtis was included in an illustrious list of five winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO UK and Ireland For Women In Science awards for her work. She is currently working at RCSI in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics.
What inspired you to become a researcher?
I distinctly remember doing my final-year undergraduate project in Prof Pete Humphries’ laboratory in Trinity College Dublin.
I really enjoyed the lab work and, at the end of the project, his postdoc student who had supervised me said: “You should do a PhD, you have the perfect personality and skillset for it.”
I was so relieved to find something that I was somewhat good at. From that point on, I was hooked.
Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?
We are really interested in understanding how our body clock in the immune cell – the macrophage – actually works; in particular, how that macrophage responds to inflammation and produces inflammation.
Our body clocks control almost 40pc of our genes, and your macrophage in the morning is very different to your macrophage in the evening.
Also, if you disturb the clock in your macrophage – which we do every day by exposing ourselves to light at night, or erratic eating patterns – we find that macrophage is highly pro-inflammatory. We are trying to figure out why that is.
In your opinion, why is your research important?
My PhD mentor used to say all research is good if it is done well. What we do is important because we are experiencing an epidemic of chronic inflammatory diseases, like obesity, diabetes, arthritis etc.
One factor leading to this epidemic could be disruption of our body clocks; therefore, understanding what this clock does in terms of inflammation is really important.
What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?
Medicines that can improve inflammatory disease, diagnostic tests that can predict inflammatory disease. Even better health policies to keep our body clocks in good shape.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?
Funding, funding, funding and, also, finding really good students to come and train and work in my lab.
The success of the lab is down solely to folks who actually do the experiments. It is really important that we have the best and brightest students doing science courses at university so that they will go on and train as researchers.
Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research? How would you address them?
Don’t know if there are common misconceptions about clock research, other than having to do weird hours (which you sometimes just have to do!).
As a scientist in general, there may be misconceptions that we are all very nerdy and never have any fun. My experience has been that you have some of the best fun working in a research laboratory. People around me are amazing, smart, dedicated and inspiring. It’s a pure joy to work around such superb individuals and have great fun at the same time.
What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?
I would love to see us making more strides in human pharmacology. We do so much research to find a good drug target and finally get to the point that we try that medicine in humans, but it fails.
We still don’t understand enough about how humans respond to medicines, and we actually don’t train enough individuals to have both medical and pharmacology degrees to really conduct this type of work.
Who is your unsung hero of science and why?
My unsung heroes in science are the researchers who do all the work, but they are not the ones giving talks or being interviewed.
For example – and this is the case across the world – there are many unbelievable scientists who work in laboratories who have superb ability, but just don’t want to run their own laboratory.
These are the scientists who keep the show on the road, so to speak; they are the drivers of science and are always beavering away in the background. These are the truly remarkable individuals of science, and the unsung heroes.