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Unlocking immunity

27 October 2009

Research into immunity and infection at Cardiff University has been given a multi-million pound boost with a major award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

An internationally recognised team from the School of Medicine, led by Professor Andy Sewell, will further their world-leading work into T-cells after being awarded £3M by the BBSRC.

T-cells perform essential roles in the human immune system. They control and protect us from infection, are vital in the natural eradication of cancer and hold the key to successful vaccinations.

T-cells can also malfunction and when this occurs, they are believed to cause autoimmune diseases such as diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Autoimmunity is typically chronic, progressively debilitating and cannot be cured and these diseases generate huge human and financial costs.

The £3M award will allow Professor Sewell and his team to examine how individual T-cells recognise huge numbers of foreign antigens (known as cross-reactivity). This essential cross-reactivity is enabled because the receptor molecule on the T-cell surface is highly promiscuous and can recognise many similar molecular ‘shapes’.

While T-cell receptor promiscuity allows our T-cells to control infection it is also thought to be responsible for the harmful effects these cells can sometimes cause. Autoimmunity is believed to arise when a receptor that is raised to fight infection is inadvertently promiscuous enough to recognize our own tissues. This promiscuous receptor recognition can also result in allergic reactions and is responsible for why our immune cells attack a ‘foreign’ organ in the first week after it is transplanted.

Explaining the need for this research, Professor Sewell said: "T-cell receptor promiscuity sits at the very heart of most human health. Despite its obvious importance, there has never yet been a proper attempt to examine or assess this promiscuity and the T-cell cross-reactivity it enables. New tools developed by the Cardiff team have finally provided the keys to unlock this study and make this research especially timely.

"Basic biological research is vital for later clinical applications but this is one of those areas where the possibilities for translation are clear from the outset. As such, we anticipate that this work will generate valuable spin offs that improve clinical practice in addition to furthering our understanding of the very interaction that orchestrates human immunity."

Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research, BBSRC, said: "Fundamental bioscience research is vital to underpin advances in medicine and healthcare. By understanding processes that lie at the very core of how our bodies function, such as T-cell receptor promiscuity, researchers can go on to use the knowledge to develop new treatments and therapies for a wide range of diseases."

Professor Sewell and his team have a long history in T-cell research. They have already helped engineer T-cell receptors that can recognise all the different disguises that HIV is known to have used to evade detection. The genetically engineered cells were able to destroy HIV-infected cells in culture and clinical trials are just starting.

BBSRC is the main UK public funder of bioscience research. It invests around £450M a year in cutting-edge science and training that helps to support the national quality of life and the UK economy by underpinning developments in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, food and agriculture.

The Cardiff group will start work on the new research in November 2009.

1. Cardiff School of Medicine

Cardiff University’s School of Medicine is a significant contributor to healthcare in Wales, a major provider of professional staff for the National Health Service and an international centre of excellence for research delivering substantial health benefits locally and internationally. The School’s 800 staff include 500 research and academic staff who teach more than 2,000 students, including 1,110 postgraduate students.

The School is based at the Heath Park Campus, a site it shares the University Hospital of Wales, the third largest university hospital in the UK. The School has an all-Wales role, contributing greatly to promoting, enhancing and protecting the nation’s health. A key partner in this role is the National Health Service (NHS) in Wales, with which the School is linked at all levels. This mutual dependency is illustrated by the teaching of medical undergraduates in more than 150 hospitals located in all of Wales’ health authorities. The medical curriculum followed at the

School enables students to acquire and apply knowledge, skills, judgement and attitudes appropriate to delivering a high standard of professional care. Around 300 new doctors currently graduate from the School every year and the Welsh Assembly Government has invested substantially in new teaching facilities to increase this number further.

The School is an international leader in basic and clinically applied research activities and scored highly in the most recent Government Research Assessment Exercise. School of Medicine researchers annually win tens of millions of pounds in research awards to work with Government, the healthcare industries and the charitable sector on the most pressing issues of human health. The School has six interdisciplinary research groups to draw upon its own strength in depth and the vast range of expertise available across Cardiff University. These groups are addressing cancer; health sciences research; cardiovascular sciences; genomic approaches to health and disease; infection, immunity and inflammation; metabolism repair and regeneration. The School continually invests in facilities, with major developments including the Henry Wellcome Building for Biomedical Research in Wales, the largest enterprise of its kind ever in Wales. This £11M centre contains research laboratories and facilities for patients to participate in investigations of new disease treatments.

The School has been instrumental in establishing and running many important national research initiatives including the Wales Gene Park, Wales Cancer Bank, the Cardiff Institute for Tissue Engineering and Repair and the Healing Foundation UK Centre for Burns Research. The Wales Gene Park is involved in biomedical research, the provision to the NHS of novel diagnostic and clinical services, knowledge dissemination, genetics and genetics education, and the successful commercialisation of innovations arising from such activities. The Wales Cancer Bank is a collaborative project involving several Welsh NHS Trusts, the universities of Bangor and Swansea and the Welsh Assembly Government and is the first population-based collection of tumour and control tissue samples in Wales. The research will help establish the causes of cancer, help identify new areas for treatment and find out the best way to care for individual patients.

The Cardiff Institute for Tissue Engineering and Repair uses scientific research to solve problems which are placing a heavy burden on health services around the world, such as, eye repair, chronic wounds, kidney repair and sports injuries. The Healing Foundation UK Centre for Burns Research is a multi-million pound collaboration investigating treatments and support fort the physical and mental rehabilitation of the 14,000 people suffering severe burns in the country every year.

2. Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

Visit the University website at:

Victoria Dando

Public Relations

Cardiff University

Tel: 02920 879074