How these ‘calming’ stem cells can help patients

12 Oct 2018

Dr Karen English. Image: Maynooth University

Dr Karen English at Maynooth University is improving cellular therapies to calm the immune system. She spoke to Dr Claire O’Connell.

We all know someone who seems to have the magic touch when it comes to taking the heat out of situations, calming troubled waters. In the body, perhaps the equivalent peacemakers are mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs). These stem cells have anti-inflammatory powers, so can we harness their powers even further to help patients?

Dr Karen English at Maynooth University (MU) is on a mission to boost the superpowers of MSCs in order to help treat chronic and life-threatening conditions that involve the immune system. Her work on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung fibrosis, diabetes, asthma and graft-versus-host disease is showing promise in the lab.

“People are aware of stem cells because they have the ability to turn into other types of cells, but I look at a different property that they have,” explained English, who is a a principal investigator in MU’s Department of Biology and head of the Cellular Immunology Lab.

“We want to use the ability of these cells to calm inflammation in the body, and we use mesenchymal stem cells, which the body naturally makes in bone marrow. Mesenchymal stem cells have been used in bone marrow transplants for decades and they have an excellent safety profile.”

Calming influence

English is interested in how these cellular ‘calmers’ or suppressors could be applied in conditions where the immune system’s strong response is causing a problem.

“You might have the situation where the immune system is damaging important parts of the body, such as the lungs in COPD or the pancreas in type 1 diabetes, or a life-saving transplant of bone marrow or an organ doesn’t match the person’s body – and this is where we think mesenchymal stem cells could calm things down,” said English, whose work has been funded through Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board, the Irish Research Council and the European Commission.

“There are drugs that can suppress the immune system but they can have serious side effects, so the cellular therapy offers other options that could be easier for patients.”

In their work on cellular therapy, English and her lab have discovered that treating MSCs with a naturally occurring molecule called interferon gamma can boost their ability to calm. “We think that interferon gamma supports mesenchymal stem cells in the body, and that maybe some patients don’t make enough of it,” she said. “One way that we can help to improve the performance of the mesenchymal stem cells is to pre-treat them with interferon gamma before introducing them to the body.”

English is now working with cellular therapy companies Athersys in the US and ReGenesys in Belgium, and Irish drug delivery company Sublimity Therapeutics (previously Sigmoid Pharma) to help move her findings in the lab further towards patients. “We are looking at different ways through which we can improve the performance of mesenchymal stem cells,” she said. “And collaborating with industry means our research can help to improve the cellular products for patients.”

Boosting equality

As well as powering up MSCs to fight disease, English is heavily involved in MU’s Athena SWAN programme, which seeks to create a more equal workplace.

English sits on the university’s self-assessment committee for Athena SWAN, and was involved in MU’s achievement of a bronze medal under the scheme. She is now co-ordinating the self-assessment for the Department of Biology at MU. The process involves gathering information about aspects such as gender diversity among students, researchers and staff; maternity and paternity and other family-related leave; and various focus groups.

“It has been a really interesting exercise,” she said. “One of the big things that came out of it was that the postgraduates wanted more rounded support, so we are now building that into the progress assessments. It will provide an opportunity to talk about career development and general wellbeing.”

Another action that came out of the Athena SWAN self-assessment was establishing a seminar series hosting influential female scientists in the area of biochemistry and biology, and there’s a nod to a local scientific star. “We want to promote visibility of female scientists,” explained English. “And we have named this the Kathleen Lonsdale Seminar Series after the famous Kildare woman who made discoveries in x-ray crystallography.”

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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