Systems Immunity Research Institute
Cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, arthritis, infection, respiratory problems in new born babies, macular degeneration, eczema, psoriasis – all seemingly different diseases and yet there is something that links them all, inflammation.
This is the body's normal response to infection or injury and is essential for healing. Often, the point when it becomes chronic (or long term) is when it changes from being helpful to harmful. When this happens, our bodies lose control of the inflammatory response, promoting the development of disease. Although scientists know that inflammation plays a key role in all these illnesses, what drives it to become damaging in the first place is still largely a mystery.
We know that the processes responsible for driving inflammation vary considerably, even in patients with the same disease, but the study of this on an individualised basis is only in its infancy and still poorly understood.
To be able to make clinical decisions on the basis of detailed knowledge of each person’s inflammatory or infection status is a major goal and highly relevant for precision medicine, where treatments are individually tailored and based on a far deeper understanding of the stage or form of the disease itself.
Researchers at Cardiff University are internationally outstanding across a broad range of infection, immunity and inflammation research and the University set up the Systems Immunity Research Institute in August 2015 to address the global health challenge of these killer diseases. Researchers apply big data / systems biology approaches to understanding inflammation in all its forms, by studying large datasets using computer sciences and mathematics.
A major challenge lies in integrating separate and often disparate views of co-existing diseases in the same patient groups, as well as in cellular studies and animal models.
Director, Professor Paul Morgan explains the challenge that this can present: “Nowadays our experiments generate a massive amount of data, for example describing the genetics, genomics, metabolomics/lipidomics and proteomics of inflammation either in cells or human samples. Identifying and extracting the important pieces of data is extremely challenging. Ensuring we have the right tools is essential if we are to succeed in the search.”
Co-Director, Professor Valerie O’Donnell said: “Combining biomedical expertise with informatics and mathematics takes our research to the next level allowing us to handle and analyse our data in new and innovative ways. This approach is already leading to major findings that have the potential to change how we view inflammatory and infectious diseases.”
Significant progress has been made at Cardiff in recent years in studying inflammatory variables in large population groups, offering data riches which can help to identify and focus on the triggers of chronic inflammation.
In its first year, the Research Institute secured 46 new grants worth over £9.4m, including prestigious Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards, a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant and several Medical Research Council grants. It also established a PhD programme in Systems Immunity, appointed new faculty in key skills areas of systems biology and mathematical modelling and consolidated its informatics core with new staff and infrastructure.
Another highlight is the Research Institute’s strategic international partnerships with the new Biomedical Discovery Institute, at Monash University, and with the Hudson Institute of Medical Research (HIMR) at the University of Melbourne, led by Professor Jamie Rossjohn, joint faculty with Cardiff and Monash. Collaborative studies between Research Institute and Monash are providing novel data on roles of cytokines in disease progression, as well as defining new paradigms in T cell biology (major cells involved in autoimmune disease), with Professors David Price and Andy Sewell. The collaborative work includes the development of new treatments, diagnostics and predictors of disease outcome in these areas.
The Research Institute invests significantly in public engagement activities, working with teachers and school children, health care professionals, national funders, local charities, policy makers and the general public.
The Research Institute is a major participant in the recently established Clinical Innovation Partnership between Cardiff University and Cardiff and Vale University Health Board; this enables it to work with healthcare professionals and industry to accelerate the real-world applications of its research leading to new diagnostic tests, drug treatments and changes to national and international policy in healthcare and patient treatment.
Read the full article
This is a shortened version of the full article that features in the Winter 2016 issue of Challenge Cardiff, our research magazine.