Mechanobiology – the ‘dark matter’ of cancer and immunity

MCT research seminar

The way we act very much depends on our surroundings; not the least on the weather conditions. In a similar way, cells in our body very much depend on what is going on around them. It has been known for a long time that the specific niches in which cells reside impact on the cellular phenotype. While most researchers have looked at chemical signals – either released into the environment or reflecting the composition of the extracellular matrix – it is becoming increasingly clear that also physical properties, such as stiffness and topography, are sensed by a wide variety of cells and influences their decisions.

It is our pleasure to welcome Prof Viola Vogel this Monday at RCSI for the MCT research seminar.

July 16th, 4.00 pm, Albert Lecture Theatre “How does the mechanobiology of extracellular matrix steer cancer progression?

Prof Vogel and her laboratory at ETH Zurich have pioneered the field of mechanobiology. Her earlier work focused on how proteins act as mechanochemical switches to transduce mechanical signals from the ECM into the cell. More recent work addresses the importance of tissue strain in the development of tumours. Prof Vogel will also share her latest results on how physical constraints affect decision making of macrophages.

Anyone who is interested in getting a different viewing angle on cancer and immunity is heartily invited! To steer your personal decision making towards attending the talk, refreshments will be served from 3.30 pm on in the Atrium.

Ingmar Schoen

Circadian Immunometabolism. What it is and why your immune system will not thank you for eating curry chips at 2am after the disco

MCT Research Seminar

The Curtis Clock laboratory has a real interest in metabolism, which is a really broad term and means different things to different people. We are interested in how different fuels (sugars , fats, proteins) are metabolised (broken down) within immune cells, and if this has an impact on how that immune cell functions. The key metabolic organelle within a cell is the mitochondria, that is where the breakdown parts of these fuels end up and are converted to energy (ATP). We are a Clock lab, so our raison d’etre (so to speak) is to unravel how different fuels are metabolised within immune cells at different times of day and how the mitochondria work at different times of day, and how that impacts the response of the immune cell at that time of day. This is what we now term “Circadian Immunometabolism”. This leads me on nicely to our title, before the age of electricity, our forefathers never ate in the middle of the night, we believe that our immune system becomes dysfunctional when it has to deal with food during a time when we now believe our immune system is undergoing repair and restoration. So to begin to get at these big questions, Mariana and George have two exciting projects ongoing. Mariana, who is a postdoc in the laboratory, will show how our mitochondria are changing over the course of the day in dendritic cells (these are cells of the innate immune system and are the ones that feed information to our adaptive immune system) (see Fig. 1). The title of her talk is

“Those mitochondria have got rhythms! Mitochondrial activity and antigen processing in dendritic cells is dependent on the molecular clock protein BMAL1”.

George, a PhD student in the lab, is dissecting down into the cells to figure out how the electron transport chain (the side of action for ATP synthesis) is controlled by the clock. The title of his talk is

“Metabolic pathways in a macrophage lacking a molecular clock”

Mitochondria have a very important role in cellular metabolism, their morphology is completely different during the day (elongated) (yellow) or during the night (fragmented) (blue) nucleus (gray)

Annie Curtis

More details of what we do can be found here:

FcgRIIa –an attractive target to control immune response

MCT Research Talks

Our group is a drug discovery lab currently working on the development of a novel Fc gamma receptor IIa inhibitors. FcgRIIa is a low affinity receptor for Fc portion of immunoglobulin G (IgG) and is implicated in a variety of conditions that are still mainly untreatable, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, immune thrombocytopenia, sepsis. FcgRIIa is widely expressed by human innate immune cells, and is the only Fc gamma receptor found on human platelets.

Mainly over-stimulation of the FcgRIIa receptor in these conditions that leads to the progression of the disease. For example, in sepsis the platelets get activated via FcgRIIa in response to bacteria present in the blood, which results in thrombocytopenia and disseminated immune coagulopathy. This causes, not only internal haemorrhage but also formation of blood clots that block peripheral blood vessels leading to sepsis-associated limb loss, heart attacks and/or strokes. Using a targeted approach, such as pharmacophore modelling, our group has developed a small molecule compound that effectively blocks FcgRIIa-mediated platelet aggregation in vitro. In agreement with the chosen targeted approach, this compound was shown to bind to the FcgRIIa directly and possesses specificity for the FcgRII subgroup of the Fcg receptors.

Ultimately, this compound has a great potential to be used for treatment of other FcgRIIa-mediated auto-immune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and an array of immune thrombocytopenia conditions.

Prof Dermot Cox, Dr Tatiana Devine and Padraig Norton

MCT Success at RCSI Research Day 2018

Dear All,
I wanted to congratulate everyone for their significant contributions to recent RCSI Research Day.  MCT’s presence was strong on the day with a number of keys oral and poster presentations from across the four MCT research pillars. 
In particular, a huge congratulations to:
 Dr Joan Ni Gabhann for the Most Highly Cited RCSI Senior Authored Paper with Industry Collaboration 2012-2016 for her paper ‘Btk regulates macrophage polarization in response to lipopolysaccharide’.
 Rebecca Watkin (PI Prof Steven Kerrigan) and Edmund Gilbert (PI Prof Gianpiero Cavalleri)  who jointly won the best postgraduate oral presentation, sponsored by Bio-Sciences Limited, for their presentations on ‘S.aureus induced miR330-3p expression triggers abnormal permeability in an ex-vivo 2D model of sepsis’ and ‘The Irish DNA Atlas: Revealing Fine-Scale Population Structure and History within Ireland’, respectively.
 Prof James O’Donnell (ICVB) who won the Clinician CEO Innovation Award.
 Dr Ingmar Schoen for his novel Invention Disclosure.
 Camille Hurley (PI Dr Darran O’Connor) Edmund Gilbert (PI Prof Gianpiero Cavalleri)  and Conor Duffy (PI Claire McCoy) for winning inaugural RCSI International Secondment Awards.
 Finally, well done to Dr Claire McCoy for giving an inspiring and heartfelt presentation about her SFI President of Ireland Future Research Leader Award.
 Well done all. A fantastic achievement for MCT.
 Best wishes,

MCT at RCSI Research Day 2018

Five MCT researchers were selected to give oral presentations at RCSI Research Day 2018 – Wednesday 7th March

Category: Early Career Investigators (Post-doctoral Fellows):

Mariana Patricia Cervantes Silva: Those mitochondria have got rhythms! Mitochondrial activity and antigen processing in dendritic cells is dependent on the molecular clock protein BMAL1

Stephanie Annett: The role of FKBPL in LPS induced endothelial barrier dysfunction.

Category: All Postgraduates (Thesis in 3)

Rebecca L Watkin: S. aureus induced miR330-3p expression triggers abnormal permeability in an ex-vivo 2D model of sepsis.

Orla Fox: Uncoupling Activated Protein C Functions by Inhibition of PostTranslational Beta-Hydroxylation.

Edmund Gilbert: The Irish DNA Atlas: Revealing Fine-Scale Population Structure and History within Ireland

Well done!!!

A great week for Body Clock Research in MCT RCSI

Last week was another superb week for circadian research in the Molecular and Cellular Therapeutics Department. The Curtis Laboratory published our first big paper on the immune body clock in Nature Communications. This study originated back in 2013. I was still a postdoc in Prof. Luke O’Neills laboratory at Trinity College and was intrigued by some of the studies that showed that multiple sclerosis (MS) was affected by the circadian disruption. A key study showed that teenagers who work shift work before the age of 18 are more susceptible to multiple sclerosis in later life. I wondered if we would see any differences in multiple sclerosis if we disturbed the immune body clock. I approached Prof. Kingston Mills also at Trinity College, who is one of the world leaders of multiple sclerosis and has a key mouse model that recapitulates certain features of MS, called experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE). The first experiment we conducted was to see if a mouse which does not have the molecular clock in macrophages was more susceptible to disease, and low and behold it was! This project was driven by one of the most talented researchers that I have ever had the pleasure of working with, Dr. Caroline Sutton, who is a senior postdoctoral fellow in Prof. Mills lab. This project is a great example of collaboration between multiple labs, Mills, O’Neill and my own new group here at RCSI.

And if that wasn’t enough! We also hosted the circadian expert Prof. Qing-jun Meng for our second institutional seminar series on Thursday. Prof. Meng is a world expert on clocks in the musculoskeletal system at University of Manchester. I met Qing-jun in 2013, and have followed his research intensely. He has made seminal discoveries on the impact of the clock on cartilage and invertebral disk function and how this leads to diseases of ageing, such as osteoarthritis and lower back pain. He had the audience enthralled for an hour with his rhythmic images of cells glowing with 24-hour rhythms, and his use of Google searches. It was an absolute pleasure to have Qing-jun with us for the day, and I hope that we can have him back again in the near future.


Some news features on the article can be found here:



Written by Annie Curtis

MCT Research Talks November 27th 2017

Dr Justyna Surowka, Medical University of Lublin, Lublin, Poland
(Current Erasmus Post-doc with the O’Connor group) presented “Assessment of chosen immune cell populations in patients with ovarian cancer”
Despite the decades of studies on developing new therapeutic strategies, ovarian cancer remains one of the malignancies with the highest mortality rate. Therefore, new therapies, among them immunotherapy, are in demand. Recently, Kurman and Shih proposed a new classification of ovarian cancer. It is based on molecular and histopathological differences between tumors and divides them into two subtypes: type I and type II ovarian cancer. However, there are no studies exploring functions of an immune system in those types of ovarian cancer. We demonstrated that each type of ovarian cancer can induce a unique phenotype of dendritic cells and differentiation of Tregs, both associated with immunosuppressive function, which may be an obstacle while developing effective anticancer dendritic cell vaccination.

Dr Sudipto Das presented “Dissecting the epigenome of metastatic colorectal cancer”
The talk highlighted the experimental and analytical pipelines that have been established in the lab in order to develop single-base pair resolution DNA methylation maps derived from difficult-to-handle FFPE (Formalin Fixed Paraffin Embedded) tissue. We next applied these optimized approaches to primary tumour samples derived from 58 metastatic colorectal cancer (mCRC) patients and 10 matched normal samples, with an aim to unravel the methylation alterations across both conventional gene regulatory regions such as promoters as well as alternative regulatory elements such as enhancers of protein-coding and non-coding genes. Intriguingly, we have now identified a DNA methylation specific signature consisting of 377 differentially methylated loci that differentiates tumour and normal and in parallel provides us with three distinctive clinical clusters, which show a significant overlap with prognostically relevant consensus molecular sub-types of CRC. However, further work is warranted to ascertain the precise function of the signature as well as their role in predicting patient response to treatment.
The second part of the talk detailed about the ongoing genomics focused on “n-of-1” genomic studies which essentially involves atypical cancer presentation in patients, with the idea of understanding the biology of such unusual clinical phenotypes and moreover to identify any potential therapeutic targets.

MCT Lab Safari Activities

On November 14th, we welcomed almost 50 secondary school students at our Department for Lab Safari. The event was designed to encourage young people to consider a career in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine through hands-on experience and demonstrations prepared by our researchers. We developed 6 different workstations focused on Cancer biology and biomarkers, Drug Discovery, Multiple Sclerosis, Human Genetics and Immunology/Body clock

Tracy Robson

The event was opened by Prof. Tracy Robson, Head of MCT, sharing her career path in research and lessons that she learnt. Dr Avril Hutch, Head of RSCI Equality and Diversity Unit, also spoke about stereotypes in STEMM careers and having an awareness of unconscious bias.

Caragh Stapleton

Human Genetics
Our workstation was led by Caragh Stapleton, Katherine Benson and Edmund Gilbert, centered around human genetics. Our activity set out to teach participants about inherited traits and demonstrate how variation in our DNA influences our physical attributes. We investigated a number of traits including PTC taster (using PTC taste strips), colour blindness, widows peak, tongue rolling, attached earlobes, bent little finger, eye colour and red hair. Each participant noted whether or not they had the given trait and we then discussed the hypotheses of the genetic variants influencing the different traits.

Olga Piskareva and John Nolan

Cancer Biomarkers
Our workstation was led by Olga Piskareva and John Nolan. We explained the concept of biomarkers and the importance of discovering novel biomarkers for neuroblastoma, a childhood malignancy. Various chromosomal aberrations can be biomarkers of neuroblastoma aggressiveness. One of the strongest predictors of rapid neuroblastoma progression is MYCN status. We selected several neuroblastoma cell lines with known MYCN status providing a good illustration of biomarker’s quantity. Using immunodetection, we visualised the differences in the MYCN presence.

Mariana Patricia Cervantes Silva

Immunology/Body Clock
Our workstation was led by Annie Curtis, Mariana Patricia Cervantes Silva, George Timmons and Cathy Wyse. The theme of our activity was on the body clock and immune function. We discussed with the students why they get jet lag and what that has to do with their body clock. Students then moved to the first station where they got a chance to add colouring to macrophages, so we had red, yellow, blue and green macrophages and were able to look at their coloured macrophages under a microscope. Then they moved to the next station where they got to see the master clock which resides in the hypothalamus of the brain under a microscope. Finally, we displayed some images of activated macrophages and explained their function.

Stephanie Annett

Cancer Cell Biology
Our workstation lead by Sudipto Das, Gillian Moore and Stephanie Annett, focused on showcasing the various laboratory-based approaches applied regularly to identify and investigate novel gene or protein-based biomarkers of cancer progression. Within our workstation, we highlighted three key areas including how samples following biopsy from a cancer patient are used to construct tissue microarrays which are used for assessing the importance of a certain protein in cancer. This was followed by demonstrating a particular tissue culture-based method used to study anti-cancer properties of drugs and finally displaying an array of microscopic images of blood vessels developing in a given tumour.

Conor Duffy

Multiple Sclerosis
Our workstation was led by Claire McCoy, Remsha Afzal and Conor Duffy. The research focus at our lab safari station was Multiple Sclerosis (MS). We explained how the causes of MS are unknown, but that it is characterised by an influx of immune cells into the brain and spinal cord. Our research aims to investigate one type of immune cell called the macrophage. We aim to understand the damage macrophages cause in MS and if we can reverse this to provide an alternative tool for MS therapeutics. We really enjoyed explaining our research at the Lab Safari, where we showed students how MS impacts on brain function and showed them examples of activated macrophages under the microscope.

Padraig Norton

Drug Discovery
Our workstation was led by Dermot Cox and Padraig Norton. Students were given a brief history of drug discovery. Then they were introduced to the basic concepts of how a drug binds to its target and the different ways in which a drug can bind. Students were then shown a demonstration of molecular docking on a computer whereby a small molecule, or drug candidate, was virtually docked into a target binding site using the software.

Tracy Robson and Anne Grady

The event was led by Dr Maria Morgan, Anne Grady, Prof. Tracy Robson, Dr Olga Piskareva and John O’Brien. Guides on the evening included Olwen Foley, Camille Hurley, Mary Ledwith, Seamus McDonald and Shane O’Grady.

Prof Luke O’Neill delivered the inaugural lecture at the RCSI Research Seminar Series

Prof Luke O’Neill delivered the inaugural lecture at the RCSI Research Seminar Series yesterday. Luke O’Neill is the professor of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin. Luke is a world-renowned scientist known for his contributions to the field of Immunology, more specifically Toll-like receptors, innate immune signaling, cytokines and most recently Immunometabolism. He is one of Ireland’s most influential scientists having published >300 publications and is in the top 1% of the world’s most cited scientists in Immunology. He is the recipient of many prestigious awards including the Boyle Medal for Scientific Excellence and last year was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Luke told us many exciting stories. The first highlighted how the inflammasome sensor NLRP3 is critical for the production of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-1. A cytokine essential for our fight against infection, but is elevated and extremely damaging in many diseases including Rheumatoid arthritis, colitis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and hypertension. Luke’s team discovered a small molecule inhibitor against NLRP3 that has shown efficacy in 32 models of disease, as astounding effect never observed before. The inhibitor is now entering clinical trials and could excitingly pave the way as a radical treatment for many diseases.

The second story introduced the concept of Immunometabolism, a phenomenon where immune cells utilize metabolic pathways to generate inflammatory mediators. In response to infection, immune cells such as macrophages increase the production of glycolysis whilst at the same time cause a block in Kreb’s cycle. This block leads to the accumulation of intermediates such as succinate. Importantly, Luke has shown that succinate is critical for the production of IL-1 via the transcription factor HIF-1alpha. Inhibition of succinate ablates IL-1 production in response to infection, as well as in a number of disease models tested. Luke highlights that the manipulation of energy pathways could very likely provide an alternative mechanism for therapy in inflammatory disorders.

It was a real pleasure to hear Luke speak at RCSI. To learn more about the above stories, check out the following publications: