The Discipline of Immunology in Trinity Translational Medicine Institute at St. James’s Hospital is currently home to 11 full-time researchers in addition to a number of visitors from collaborating departments and students doing short-term projects. In close partnership with the Immunology Diagnostic Latoratories at St. James’s Hospital, our research is aimed at finding out how the immune system can protect against or cause disease in humans and how it can be manipulated for the development of novel therapies. We are particularly interested in novel populations of T lymphocytes, known as innate T cells, which appear to be “master regulators” of the immune system, being able to determine the type and strength of an immune response, and which are defective in many infectious and immune-mediated diseases and cancers. Innate T cells include invariant natural killer (iNKT) T cells, mucosal-associated invariant T (MAIT) cells and a number of subsets of gamma/delta (γδ) T cells (Vδ1, Vδ2 and Vδ3 T cells), and they recognize and respond to glycolipids, pyrophosphates, carbohydrates and other metabolites that are produced by microbial pathogens or by host cells responding to pathogen exposure or tumour transformation. We have demonstrated that innate T cells can influence the activation and subsequent responses of other immune cells, including natural killer, dendritic cells, B cells and conventional T cells and have provided in vitro evidence to support their utility for immunotherapy. In collaboration with clinical colleagues at Trinity College Dublin, we are studying various innate T cell populations in patients infected with hepatitis B virus, hepatitis C virus, HIV, Aspergillus and Candida albicans and in patients with oesophageal cancer, chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, septic shock, coeliac disease, antibody deficiencies, small vessel vasculitis and neonatal encephalopathy. The results show that particular innate T cells can be manipulated to promote the generation of desirable immune responses for the treatment of disease. A major goal is to develop cellular therapies for global infectious diseases, in particular HIV, and to this end our group has generated data that suggest that therapeutic activation of one innate T cell subset may slow down or halt the development of AIDS. This work has led to funded collaborations with researchers in Uganda, with whom we hope to implement interventions that will improve the wellbeing of HIV-positive people in Uganda and similar environments throughout Africa.
The second research area in the Discipline of Immunology is concerned with the immune system in the liver. In collaboration with clinicians and scientist at St. James’s Hospital, St. Vincent’s University Hospital, the Mater Misericordiae University Hospital and the Department of Zoology, we are investigating the roles of natural killer cells and innate T cells in the progression of viral and parasitic liver disease and development of liver cirrhosis.