Who’s the boss? Melbourne research shows cells influence their own destiny

ICT for Life Sciences, Media releases

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers, with the help of NICTA’s Victoria ICT Laboratory, are a step closer to being able to model the complexity of our immune system in a computer thanks to research published in Science today.  This will be a critical tool in developing new vaccines and better therapies for autoimmune diseases.

The human immune system is incredibly complex, with hundreds of different kinds of cells interacting with as many hormones and proteins. We really only understand a few pieces of the puzzle, which makes it hard to develop new therapies.

NICTA is working with the Walter and Eliza Hall team to create an ‘in-silico’ computer model of the immune system that will allow researchers to ‘play’ with the immune system. Today’s report is a key step on the path.

The research team filmed 2,500 individual immune cells growing in vitro over 3 days, and then over months analysed the film to determine what happened to each cell.

They found that individual cells – living in the same conditions – had very different fates. It was as if each of them were racing towards all possible outcomes but in each case the outcome of the race varied. Some died, some divided, some produced antibodies, some changed the antibody they were making.

NICTA researcher Dr John Markham helped with the development of the technology and of techniques to analyse the videos.

Dr Phil Hodgkin, the project leader, says that NICTA’s skills will be critical in translating all the experimental information into a working computer model.

“ICT has the power to transform our work – allowing us to make predictions and rapidly test them online,” says Dr Hodgkin. “But it is difficult for life scientists to develop both the experimental skills and the ICT skills.  And funding is harder to secure from the traditional life science research funders.”

“Our collaboration with NICTA is giving us access to an expertise that we simply could not create ourselves, and opening up real opportunities to develop computer-based predictive models of the immune response. Such models will be used to understand the complex role genetics plays in autoimmune diseases and to develop improvements to vaccines and immunotherapies.”

“We’re not the only players in the field, but our traditional strengths in immunology matched with NICTA’s expertise is giving Melbourne a competitive edge,” says Dr Hodgkin.

More details on the discovery are in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s media release at http://bit.ly/A9QTlr 

Photo: Professor Phil Hodgkin (far right) and colleagues (from left to right) Ms Jie Zhou, Dr Cameron Wellard, Dr John Markham and Dr Mark Dowling have shown that cells have some control over their own destiny.

Credit: Walter and Eliza Hall Institute