Researchers get $12 Million to visualize the immune system in action

Cutting-edge imaging technologies that allow scientists to watch the immune system work in real time are leading to a greater understanding of how we combat infection and disease. With a new $12 million grant, local researchers will use this knowledge to explore strategies to better fight infections like the flu and beat back overactive immune responses in disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus.

The five-year project, led by Deborah J. Fowell, Ph.D., dean’s professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, builds on a $9 million grant that her team received in 2014.

Both program project grants were awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Experts in immunology, vaccine biology, biomedical engineering, optics and physics will come together to investigate how the immune system functions in live mice.

They’ll take advantage of the University’s Multiphoton Core Facility, which contains state-of-the-art systems enabling in vivo (Latin for “in the living”) imaging and analysis.

Immune cells imaged in the skin

“When we take cells out of their natural environment and study them in a dish we’re missing out on a lot of biology,” said David J. Topham, Ph.D., a study project leader and professor of microbiology and immunology at URMC. “Imaging and tracking live cells is an emerging theme in immunology and one that I think is going to move forward meaningful discoveries in the field.”

In addition to Fowell and Topham, project leaders include Minsoo Kim, Ph.D., James F. Miller, Ph.D., and Patrick Oakes, Ph.D. scientists from Cornell and Loyola University will collaborate with the team, as well.

“With the previous grant we made a lot of observations that led to potential pathways for manipulating the immune response,” said Fowell. “Now we have molecular targets to investigate to improve or suppress immune responses in the tissues we’re looking at.”

Project goals for the new grant include:

• Developing tools and techniques to mark and guide immune system cells into tissues

• Exploring the movement of immune system cells through inflamed skin tissue

• Understanding how the immune system responds to flu infection in the airways

“Our projects are highly complementary, which makes each of the individual projects stronger than standing on their own,” said Topham, who will lead work related to flu infection. “Everyone involved – students, post-docs, and faculty – learn from each other. In our case, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.”

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