Immunologist Lydia Lynch talks about the challenge of science communication and how Covid-19 has altered the life sciences industry.
The last year has certainly shone a light on the life sciences sector, especially on areas such as epidemiology and immunology. But while the Covid-19 pandemic has sparked worldwide interest, the science that underpins this research has always been fascinating.
Dr Lydia Lynch is an Irish immunologist who has been deep in research for nearly two decades. She is founder of the Lynch Lab, based in both Trinity College Dublin and Harvard University, which focuses on immunometabolism – studying how the immune system and the metabolic system interact.
“The cell has its own metabolism and all the different immune cells have different metabolisms and we’re trying to understand what metabolic pathways control different cell responses,” she told Siliconrepublic.com.
“The other side is how the immune system plays an unexpected role in metabolism. It’s not just that they have their own metabolism like all cells do, it’s that when you change things in the immune system, systemic metabolism changes.”
‘You can’t just change or boost your immune system by just changing a small part of your diet’
– LYDIA LYNCH
A major focus for the lab is the relationship between obesity and the immune system. Lynch explained how obesity can affect the immune system, in that if the immune system is fed too much fat, it can become too overloaded to target the cells it’s supposed to.
Obesity is associated with many cancer risks. However, a 2019 US study found that while 88pc of Americans understood that there is a connection between a healthy heart and a healthy weight, 87pc didn’t realise there was a link between obesity and cancer.
Lynch said it’s important to engage with the public more about obesity and how it affects the immune system, but the language that is used is also important.
“We should end the stigma of obesity, which is really counterproductive. Stigma doesn’t work,” she said. “We need to talk about obesity with correct, non-stigma language.”
She also spoke about a common misconception when it comes to the immune system, which is that increasing your intake of one thing in particular, such as vitamin C or fish, can drastically boost your immune function.
“The body holds the nutrient balance in such tight regulation that you can’t just change or boost your immune system by just changing a small part of your diet,” Lynch said. “Hopefully in the future we will be able to modulate diet to change certain immune features for different diseases, but we’re not there yet.”
Outside of obesity, Lynch Labs is also interested in a new way of thinking about the immune system itself.
“It’s not just protecting us from bugs and pathogens and cancer, it’s actually able to sense what’s going on outside and adjust itself but also the body.”
When asked about trends in the life sciences industry as a whole, Lynch said she doesn’t personally like how things are changing when it comes to the publication of science papers.
“The discovery for the sake of a discovery for me is very interesting and very important. But at the end of all papers, they want you to have cured something,” she said.
Lynch gave the example of research into potential treatments for multiple sclerosis (MS), which use an animal model of MS for experiments and can involve the modulation of the protein family IL-17. She said when proving the successful modulation of IL-17, researchers cure the animal model of MS.
“So then the paper in the public ends up saying ‘we’ve cured MS’, when actually that’s been done hundreds of thousands of times in a mouse,” she explained, adding that results will be different in humans.
She said the publication of papers needs change how findings are communicated, or alter the requirements for the paper itself. “We don’t need to have cured the disease at the end of every publication in order the for the finding to be interesting,” she said.
In terms of Covid-19, however, she believes there are some positives to glean from the pandemic and its effect on the life sciences industry.
“People and scientists are in awe of how quick we could go from a pandemic where everyone was in lockdown to getting a vaccination for it in the same year,” she said, adding that she hopes it will lead to more people pursuing careers in science.
She also talked about why she loved working in science. “In 100 years we still won’t have all the answers. There’s so many questions to pursue that you’ll be able to find something that you really are passionate about,” she said. “I can’t think of a better career to pick.”
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