I am a parasite immunologist within an interdisciplinary team of scientists and work on macrophages and parasites.
When we think of parasites our first instinct is often “yuk”. Yet up close under the microscope some of them are actually quite beautiful. In developing countries, where parasites are very common, they make their “hosts” feel really unwell, such that people can’t achieve their full potential, and become trapped in lives of poverty. Parasite interactions with their hosts’ defence system, the immune system, are complex and there is much about these interactions that we simply do not understand. But one thing is clear – parasites are very good at modifying their hosts’ immune responses to prevent them being damaged and thus promoting their own survival.
One of the cell types of the immune system that parasites are good at modulating, away from a damaging (inflammatory) state and towards a healing (anti-inflammatory) state is a cell type called the macrophage. Macrophages are fascinating cells that can exist in many different activation states dictated by the environment they find themselves in: I like to think of these activation states as macrophage “moods;” and macrophages can have many moods, some good and some bad.
In many diseases of man such as inflammatory bowel disease, and chronic non-healing wounds, macrophages become trapped in their damaging state. This is where my research comes in. Just suppose we can harness parasite immune modifying power and turn it to our advantage. If we can identify the products that parasites make which alter the mood of macrophages away from their inflammatory state and towards their anti-inflammatory state, we can begin to design novel therapeutics to heal damaged tissues.
Of course, ideally, we will need to target parasite products specifically to the macrophage. Our research is thus focussing on loading tiny particles called nanoparticles with the parasite derived products and engineering the particles so they are picked up specifically by macrophages.
So by studying how macrophages can be educated by parasite-derived products we can harness the remarkable parasite modulatory power to alter a macrophage’s “mood” for our own benefit, driving macrophages away from their damaging state and towards their healing form.