Australian scientists have long been world leaders in the field of cell death research.
It was back in 1972 that Australian pathologist John Kerr first described how cells undergo apoptosis – the normal, controlled death of cells that occurs as a natural part of growth.
Since then, we’ve made many significant advances in our understanding. For example, we now know there are more than 12 different ways that cells can die.
Here at WEHI (Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research) in Melbourne, I’m surrounded by amazing, world-leading researchers who have shaped our understanding and discovered the very complex regulation underpinning cell death and survival.
We have approximately 23 trillion cells in our body and it’s very important that they die, but at the right time.
Cell death is vital to remove old, damaged, infectious or cancerous cells – essentially, getting rid of the bad and making space for the good. It’s pretty amazing to think that humans are just trillions of cells that have come together. That’s why it’s so important to understand the basic cellular biology of who we are.
It’s sometimes a struggle in this world of basic research to get the recognition from the broader population: a lot of people want to know about the “sexy science”, such as therapeutics and translational work that’s directly going into the clinic.
However, we need to be funding and supporting researchers who work on the basic biology of science so that we can gain the fundamental understanding that underpin those advances – then we can translate these findings into the clinic and create an impact.
Although we have learnt so much over the past 50 years, there’s still so much we don’t know, and some of the biggest challenges are in the cancer field.
If we’re going to kill a cancer, we have to do it in way that’s selective. If we can have better understanding of how our cells are dying, and if it’s good or bad in a particular setting, it’s going to be a very exciting area for us to expand on to make more directed therapeutics. We’re eventually going to be looking at the genomic details of each individual to match it against the effectiveness of particular therapies. This realm of precision medicine is definitely the next big thing.
That’s why it’s so important to have places like WEHI spreading their research across a wide variety of diseases, with different bodies of researchers working in different areas.
My particular area of research looks at how dying cells can cause inflammation. Inflammation is a process that’s involved in many diseases; whether it’s arthritis, cancer or autoimmune diseases, it has implications in many settings.
Most people think of inflammation as the red swelling you see on your skin if you have an insect bite or a cut or a graze. And it’s normally a good response that your body has to ring the alarm bells, essentially bringing all the good cells to the site to help fight that danger. But it all comes back to a balance. When our cells die too much, they essentially become the garbage of the body and can trigger harmful inflammation and drive diseases like arthritis.
My area of expertise is focused on understanding how these dying cells are removed to prevent inflammation. If they linger around for too long, dying cells can burst like a balloon, releasing pro inflammatory factors which recruit immune cells. This can overwhelm the area, drive inflammation and turn pathogenic.
My research through the L’Oreal-UNESCO Women In Science Fellowship will allow me to set up new exciting projects, including a model of bacterial infection.
We’re going to look at a model of salmonella, which many of us know as a stomach bug that can make us sick. However, you may not know that salmonella can kill our cells during infection. Therefore, we want to understand this infection-induced cell death, how these dying cells are removed and, importantly, how we can resolve inflammation during infection.
This project is similar to a previous study where I examined the death of key immune cells during a model of influenza A virus infection.
It’s incredible to work at a research institution like WEHI because the collaboration opportunities are endless.
In addition to internal collaborations, the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity is located across the road, plus the Peter McCallum Cancer Centre, the University of Melbourne and many hospitals are all within the same precinct, promoting incredible collaboration opportunities across a broad range of diseases – Parkville certainly is a leading hub for medical research!
However, there are of course many incredible researchers located across the country and the globe that would immensely benefit from staying connected and collaborating.
Therefore, this was my lockdown project: some people made sourdough – I founded the Australasian Cell Death Society, an international society for Australasian cell death researchers.
The ACDS has been really well received and we now have over 300 members who come together for online forums and monthly seminars.
We also have a newsletter, support our junior researchers through awards, professional development workshops and we’re holding a conference next year. We’re providing many opportunities to communicate within the scientific community, but also to collaborate.
Who knows what we might discover if we all put our heads together and support each other’s research?