Work in my lab focuses on two areas: understanding how certain immune cells develop and function in the body and investigating how environmental factors such as diet can influence the immune response.
We study a type of immune cell called CD4 T cells, which help to control how the immune system responds to pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and viruses.
We are particularly interested in a subtype called Th17 cells, and are trying to work out why some Th17 cells cause damage and inflammation, while others in the gut protect the barrier between our immune system and the trillions of gut bacteria.
We know that inflammation is influenced by environmental factors– particularly at ‘barrier’ sites such as our skin, lungs and guts – but we want to learn more about how this happens.
We focus on a protein called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AhR), which acts as an environmental sensor and passes on signals to immune cells and epithelial cells of the gut lining. If this sensing mechanism is defective, bacteria get through the barrier in the intestine, resulting in severe inflammation, damage and even the development of colon cancer.
We have already found that components found in particular foods can stimulate AhR and help to keep the gut barrier healthy. We are now working to further understand AhR’s function and how this might help us to prevent or treat inflammatory bowel conditions and cancers.