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:
I have had an immense passion for science since I began my secondary school journey, which would be five years ago, now! I became engrossed in the subject, and intrigued in all there was to learn from it. I knew it was what I wanted to pursue as a career and that it would be a major part of my future. I couldn’t be more eager to continue on my path of science and see what it has to bring.
So, as you can imagine, when I received word of a lab safari experience in RCSI, I was ecstatic and jumped at the chance to improve my knowledge in the field of molecular and cellular therapeutics, meet new people, both those with a similar ardent spirit of science and interest in the field like myself and those who have incredible stories to share of their journeys in the field. I was also especially keen to get a glimpse of the college itself, as it is a college that really stood out to me, as a lover of science and I have followed its successes and path for years now.
Arriving outside RCSI with my mother, I was filled with joy and overwhelming adrenaline as I was about to enter the college. Upon our entrance, we were shown to a room where we received our introduction talks. We first met Tracy Robson who spoke of her role as head of the department of molecular and cellular therapeutics in RCSI and her inspirational path into the area of science and focuses on the research of cancer. Her talk had to be my most enjoyable part of the whole experience as she expressed that passion for the field is what got her to where she is today, and also going out and discovering opportunities and having the courage to ask questions. It gave me motivation and encouraged me to take all opportunities that may come my way, which will benefit me as I begin my adventure into the scientific world!
We were then introduced to Avril Hutch, head of equality and diversity at RCSI. We did an exercise in which we were shown pictures of workers in the science field and we had to guess which profession they held. It gave us a glimpse at the topic of unconscious bias, particularly in science, and as a female in science myself I greatly respected her and her focus on equality in RCSI.
After being divided into our groups, we put our goggles and lab coats on and began our safari. We firstly arrived at the station of Claire McCoy who informed us of her work, targeting miR-155 activity in macrophages to promote an anti-inflammatory function for multiple sclerosis. The work she does is fascinating and it captured my attention as she explained. She was extremely polite and helpful and all questions I had, she was more than delighted to answer.
Then, moving on we met a team who thought us all about genetics, we even got to do experiments to determine what genetic traits we had ourselves and compare within our group, which I tremendously enjoyed. Lastly, we greeted Olga and John who explained the research in biomarkers for neuroblastoma. It was an extremely gripping topic to learn about and after that sadly, it was time to leave the labs.
Following the tour of the labs, fun experiments completed and brains full of new, amazing knowledge we all received certificates and colouring books of the brain, which I absolutely loved!
Overall the experience was so special to me and every bit of it was wonderful. I feel like I’ve learned so much and can use my new-found knowledge along with my journey in science. I would like to thank RCSI for holding such an event because it is greatly appreciated by those who want to adventure it to the scientific field and those who are unsure, and I hope there will be many more like it in the future. After this whole experience, I am even more certain and passionate about working in the world of science!
As some of you know, I have joined RCSI as a StAR research lecturer in June. My plan is to establish a lab on ‘MechanoVascular Biology and Microscopy’. What do I mean by this?
The first part ‘MechanoVascular Biology’ sets the scope. I am interested in how cells in the cardiovascular system use mechanical forces to achieve their tasks. As mechanical and chemical cell functions are tightly related, both play important roles in health and disease. Most research has focused on one or the other aspect, but not both. The novel research field of ‘mechanobiology’ takes an integrative approach to better understand how physical forces co-regulate chemical processes on the molecular level. In my previous work at ETH Zurich, I have studied how fibroblasts sense matrix stiffness and respond to it. Here at RCSI, I want to study platelets in the context of thrombosis and, over the years, investigate their interplay with endothelial cells.
The second part ‘Microscopy’ highlights one of the major working horses in my lab. Following the credo ‘seeing is believing’, watching cells can tell you a lot about how they do things. I use microscopy to test hypothesis but also to discover unexpected behaviour. Over the years, I have developed several new microscopy techniques to look at sub-second dynamic processes, directly measure cellular tractions, or determine the nanoscale architecture of multi-protein structures. These are great tools to better understand how the processes starting from platelet activation and ending with the consolidation of the thrombus are regulated in space and time. For this we will use in vitro models, but I am keen to move in the future towards in vivo imaging.
By now, you may have noticed from my scientific viewpoint and my enthusiasm for technology that my background is in physics. I studied physics with a specialization on biophysics at the Technical University Munich. My PhD work at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry focused on electrical stimulation of neurons with extracellular electrodes. After a short postdoc at the Ludwig Maximilians University Munich where I studied bi-molecular binding kinetics in living cells, I moved to ETH Zurich in Switzerland. That’s where I have started with mechanobiology and super-resolution fluorescence microscopy, which I know bring over to RCSI.
A long way is lying ahead of me to cross the bridge towards clinical research. I look forward to having many inspiring discussions with you, already thank you for the ones we had so far, and hope that I can make a valuable contribution to the research here at RCSI!
Looking forward to seeing you at MCT Research Talks on 16th October 2017 at 12.00 TR4!
Last Monday while in Amsterdam with my Mam and two sisters, a friend of mine sent a text to let me know that the 2017 Nobel Laureates in Physiology and Medicine were Hall, Rosbash and Young. They were awarded the Nobel for their work in identifying the key genes that create circadian or body clock rhythms in the fruit fly. My feet literally were stuck to the ground, it was thrilling to know that these gentlemen would get the recognition that they so deserve, but also what this will mean for the field of science that I am so passionate about. The body clock is the molecular timekeeping system that exists in practically every organism on the earth and in every cell in our body. Simply put, it allows the cell to tell what time of day it is. Why is that important? We live on a spinning planet and because of the earth’s rotation to the sun, all life on earth has been subjected to daily periods of light and heat, dark and cold. The body clock allows us to anticipate and respond to these 24-hour predictable environmental changes and synchronises our physiology to it. For example, the body clock increases cortisol levels in the body ahead of awakening, this helps us to become active once we wake. The body clock also increases expression of digestive enzymes in the intestinal tract during daylight hours (this is why curry chips at 3am is never a great idea!).
Back in the 80’s Hall, Rosbash and Young independently isolated a gene called Period, they showed how the gene encodes a protein PER that builds up in cells at night and degrades during the day. This daily rise and fall of PER essentially allow the cell to track time of day. How thrilling it must have been for them to observe this daily change in the mRNA levels of Period gene (Figure 1- black line), all that is changing along the x-axis is the time of day.
So what does this mean three decades later? We have made great strides in understanding how the molecular clock works. We now know that the clock keeps time by a series of transcriptional-translational feedback loops. We also know that the clock controls 40% of all coding genes within the body. The body clock controls all aspects of our physiology from metabolism to immunity.
Many diseases, such as osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease, are highly time of day dependent. Moreover, it appears that disruption of our body clocks, caused by our non-stop 24/7 lifestyle and exposure to artificial light at all times of day, is partly responsible for the increase in chronic inflammatory diseases. Unfortunately, most cell culture systems are not synchronized with the time of day, and this, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons that many researchers unknowingly neglect this field. Finally, we are making great strides in attempting to time specific treatments to the right time of day, an area called chronotherapy. Therefore, it is my hope that this increased awareness of the body clock will bring more researchers into this fascinating field. If we don’t fully understand how our body clock controls physiology and disease we will certainly be left in the dark.
Annie Curtis is a Research Lecturer and runs the Immune Clock laboratory at MCT and is fascinated by all things body clock related.
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited chronic disease that primarily affects the lungs and digestive system. CF is caused by mutations in the Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Regulator (CFTR) gene, a chloride channel responsible for helping conduct chloride and other ions across epithelial membranes. The loss of a functional CFTR channel disrupts ionic homeostasis resulting in mucus production that clogs the lungs and pancreas and results in a vicious cycle of chronic infection and inflammation as the disease progresses.
There are almost 2,000 different variants in the CFTR gene and 70 % of CF patients contain a mutation at position 508, which results in the loss of Phe508 and disruption of the folding pathway of CFTR. ΔF508 CFTR is a trafficking mutant that is retained in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) and unable to reach the plasma membrane. Efforts to enhance exit of ΔF508 CFTR from the ER and improve its trafficking are of utmost importance for the development of treatment strategies. Clinically, progress has been made in recent years identifying therapeutics that target CFTR dysfunction in patients with specific mutations. However, small molecules that directly target the most common misfolded CFTR mutant, ΔF508, and improve its intracellular trafficking in vitro, have shown modest effects We performed a study aimed to identify new therapeutic targets that will help address the unmet clinical need for CF patients homozygous for the ΔF508 mutation.We aimed to understand the protein interactions regulating CFTR transport using mass spectrometry-based proteomics. Using mass spectrometry based protein interaction profiling and global bioinformatics analysis we revealed mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signalling components to be associated with ∆F508 CFTR. Our results showed upregulated mTOR activity in ΔF508 CF bronchial epithelial cells. In addition to a well described role in several cancer subtypes, excessive activation of the mTOR pathway has been reported to be involved in age-related misfolding diseases. There are a range of inhibitors that target the PI3K/Akt/mTOR pathway and after screening a selection of inhibitors, we identified 6 different inhibitors that demonstrated an increase in CFTR stability and expression. Mechanistically, we discovered the most effective inhibitor, MK-2206 exerted a rescue effect by restoring autophagy in ΔF508 CF cells. These findings highlight this pathway as a possible therapeutic avenue worth further exploration in Cystic Fibrosis.
We aimed to understand the protein interactions regulating CFTR transport using mass spectrometry-based proteomics. Using mass spectrometry based protein interaction profiling and global bioinformatics analysis we revealed mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signalling components to be associated with ∆F508 CFTR. Our results showed upregulated mTOR activity in ΔF508 CF bronchial epithelial cells. In addition to a well-described role in several cancer subtypes, excessive activation of the mTOR pathway has been reported to be involved in age-related misfolding diseases. There are a range of inhibitors that target the PI3K/Akt/mTOR pathway and after screening a selection of inhibitors, we identified 6 different inhibitors that demonstrated an increase in CFTR stability and expression. Mechanistically, we discovered the most effective inhibitor, MK-2206 exerted a rescue effect by restoring autophagy in ΔF508 CF cells. These findings highlight this pathway as a possible therapeutic avenue worth further exploration in Cystic Fibrosis.
In keeping with the strategic objective of further increasing our international profile in the research domain, Professor John Waddington (Emeritus, MCT) has recently returned from the World Congress of Biological Psychiatry, Copenhagen, where he was invited to organise, Chair and speak in a symposium on ‘Psychosis is disrespectful to diagnostic boundaries: Nosological and pathobiological implications of psychoses beyond the schizophrenia spectrum’. He was also invited to Co-Chair and speak in a second symposium on ‘Beyond unitary models of psychosis: Confronting complex aetiology and dimensionality’. This reinforces the high standing in which our investigators are held in the international scientific community.
Dr Rebecca Coll is a Research-Industry Fellow at the University of Queensland, studying innate immunity and novel anti-inflammatory drugs. Rebecca received her PhD in Immunology in 2013 under the supervision of Professor Luke O’Neill at Trinity College Dublin and moved to Associate Professor Kate Schroder’s group at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience in UQ in 2014. Over the last five years, her research has focused on inflammasomes – protein complexes at the heart of inflammation and disease – and how these complexes can be targeted therapeutically to prevent damaging inflammation.
Rebecca led the biological characterisation of MCC950, a small molecule inhibitor of the NLRP3 inflammasome and an exciting prospect as a new therapy for treating patients with NLRP3-mediated diseases. In 2016, Rebecca received the Research Australia Discovery Award for her work on MCC950.
While RCSI is an institution with a long-standing international perspective on education in the health sciences, it has as a strategic goal the further extension of its international activities, particularly in relation to research collaborations. RCSI is doing so through several mechanisms, which include Science Foundation Ireland International Strategic Collaboration Awards (ISCAs), namely ISCA-Brazil, ISCA-China and ISCA-Japan, awards from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), the EU Erasmus+ programme, and via joint programmes with individual institutions. Over the past several years, I’ve been pleased to contribute to these developments and continue to do so in my new role as Professor Emeritus.
In October-November 2016, I spent three weeks in Japan under a JSPS Invitation Fellowship. From a base at Hoshi Pharmaceutical University, Tokyo, I also visited and gave seminars at Nihon University at its Tokyo and Matsudo campuses, Nagoya University, and Takeda Pharmaceutical Company, Fujisawa. Even after many previous visits to Japan, it’s difficult to describe the enduring professional and personal pleasures of interacting and fostering collaborations with Japanese academics/scientists and enjoying their beautiful country and so hospitable a culture and society. In addition to ongoing research collaborations with Prof. Hiroko Ikeda and her colleagues, this summer will see the second exchange of RCSI and Hoshi University students to participate in the International Research Summer School, directed in RCSI by Dr. Sarah O’Neill (MCT), whereby up to four students from each Institution travel to the other to undertake a 2-month research project. Additionally, later this year Dr. Sudipto Das (MCT) will travel to Hoshi University under a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship to further extend collaborative research studies. We hope that such interactions will grow over the years to come.
In February-March 2017, I spent three weeks in China under a joint appointment as a Professor of Pharmacology in the College of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Soochow University, approximately 100 km west of Shanghai. China is a country that is now pursuing a ‘twin-track’ approach of “… internal restructuring of its economy combined with exposure to global trade winds and investment”. While this presents some similarities but many fascinating contrasts with academe in both Japan and Ireland, interacting and fostering collaborations with Chinese academics/scientists also brings many professional and personal pleasures. While there, I gave three undergraduate lectures on mental health, met with postgraduate students and postdoctoral researchers, and facilitated the visits of Prof. Tracy Robson & Dr. Darran O’Connor (MCT), Prof. Jochen Prehn (Physiology & Medical Physics) and Prof. Brian Kirby (School of Pharmacy) to Soochow University and the subsequent reciprocal visits of Profs. Xinliang Mao and Xinchen Teng to RCSI. In addition to ongoing research collaborations with Prof. Xuechu Zhen, this summer will see the third exchange of RCSI and Soochow University students to participate in the International Research Summer School, whereby, as with Hoshi University, up to four students from each Institution travel to the other to undertake a 2-month research project. Dr. Darren Griffith (Pharmaceutical & Medicinal Chemistry) will be the next RCSI colleague to visit Soochow University and we hope that such interactions, like those with Hoshi University, will grow over the years to come.
It is difficult to think of a greater contrast than my recent visit, April 2017 under Erasmus+ funding, to Novosibirsk State University and the Institute of Physiology and Fundamental Medicine. Novosibirsk is Russia’s third-largest city and is located in Siberia, approximately 2,800 km east of Moscow. The University and Research Institutes are located in Akademgorodok [Akadem = academic, gorod = town, ok = small, hence Akademgorodok = small academic town], the purpose-built educational and scientific centre of Siberia constructed in the late 1950s approximately 30 km south of the city of Novosibirsk. In April, there was still some snow on the ground and the nearby Ob river was still frozen and will remain so until the end of May. During my stay there, the weather ranged from one blizzard and one (in their terms) ‘regular’ fall of snow through to warm, sunny periods with a temperature of 20C; Prof. Marc Devocelle (Pharmaceutical & Medicinal Chemistry) and I were reluctant to travel to Novosibirsk until April, to avoid the harsh Siberian winter, a meteorological objective that was only partially successful. This academic centre has both original and new buildings, with good teaching and research facilities. Under the kind offices of Profs. Vladimir Pustylnyaki and Michele Debrenne, Novosibirsk State University, I gave three undergraduate lectures on the neuroscience of mental health, and under the auspices of Dr. Tatiana Lipina, Institute of Physiology and Fundamental Medicine gave a postgraduate seminar.
Meetings with them and several other colleagues explored the potential for future research collaborations. After what we regarded as a good meeting, one colleague reached into a cupboard for a bottle of vodka and poured us each a generous measure; he hoped this would induce ’emotional warmth’ commensurate with what he regarded as the positivity of the meeting. After this had been imbibed, he then poured a second generous measure of vodka, to reinforce these positive sentiments. Clearly, RCSI needs to reconsider its policies in this regard with a view to appropriately realigning its practices to these new international standards. As I write this in the second week of May, Prof. Konstantin Volcho, Dr. Ekaterina Semenova and Dr. Artyom Rogachev are currently making reciprocal visits to RCSI under Erasmus+ funding and we hope that such interactions, like those with Hoshi and Soochow Universities, will grow over the years to come.
To paraphrase: ‘The future is bright, the future is East’.
She was awarded a prestigious L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science 2017 Fellowship at a ceremony held at the Royal Society in London on May 5th.
She was one of five winners of these fellowships and the only Irish winner this year. The fellowship will support her research into understanding the precise mechanisms by which the body clock restrains inflammation from a key immune cell called the macrophage.