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A new direction at The University of Manchester

The University of Manchester has recently announced the formation of the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation. With the key aims to unite basic, translational and clinical immunology and bring together immunologists from across Manchester’s research landscape, the new Institute’s ambitions revolve around innovative collaborative approaches to research and training. We sat down with the Institute’s new Director, Professor Tracy Hussell, to learn more about the rationale behind the establishment of the Institute and what they hope it will achieve.

A successful collaborative history 

The University of Manchester has a long track record of producing strong immunological research, becoming famed for its expertise on parasites through the work of Richard Grencis. Continuing this history of innovation, the immunology landscape in Manchester has significantly evolved in recent years. In October 2012, the university established the Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research, which brought with it a diverse group of experts externally recruited to bring a more ‘joined-up’ approach to their respective areas of research. At the helm was Tracy Hussell, who remains the Centre’s Director. “The whole collaborative approach of the Centre worked really well,” she explained, laying the foundation for her to go one stage further and bring together immunology research from across The University of Manchester. Thus, the rationale for the Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation, affectionately known as ‘The Becker’, was born.

To understand the influence of immunology research at Manchester, Hussell’s team put out a call across the University to track down researchers from all departments who were studying the immune system. They identified 109 Principal Investigators, from departments as diverse as ophthalmology and paediatrics. They also carried out a SciVal analysis, which allows you to visualise research performance relative to other institutions. This showed that, based on the number of publications in peer-reviewed journals from 2012–17, The University of Manchester ranked second in the area of immunology and ninth in the area of inflammation in the UK for impact of research. “I was shocked, and pleased, that immunology ranked so highly!” remarks Hussell.

Why ‘The Becker’?

The Institute is named after Manchester scientist Lydia Becker. Born in Moss Side in 1827, she is better known as a leader in the early suffrage movement. However, she was also a renowned botanist and astronomer who collaborated widely with Charles Darwin on his origin of species hypothesis. She founded the Manchester Ladies’ Literacy Society which, despite its name, was dedicated to the study of scientific matters. She strongly believed that women were intellectually equal to men and deserved the same opportunities. “We thought that she was such a determined person who tried to promote and unify science that we wanted to honour her,” said Hussell. “She seemed the most appropriate person to name our institute after.”

The immunology tree

The Lydia Becker Institute demonstrates an innovative design which recognises and unites the breadth and diversity of immunology research across The University of Manchester. The facility’s overall aim is to unite basic, translational and clinical immunology, removing traditional boundaries to find solutions for today’s global diseases (see tree diagram). The new Institute is structured around nine ‘branches’ of research: barrier immunology, cancer immunology, cardiovascular disease and obesity, cellular immunology, immune tolerance,  immuno-matrix, life course, neuroimmunology, and pathogens, parasites and commensals. Each branch is headed by a strategic lead (see table), and collaborations between branches are actively encouraged. “We don’t want to take the traditional route where everyone competes against each other for fellowship applications,” says Hussell. “The strategic leads for each area are trying to work collaboratively on strategically important topics that have potential to deliver real world benefits for patients. I think our researchers are finding that they develop innovative cross-disciplinary ideas from working with one another in this way, which strategically means they can go for much bigger bids. They have been successful in these collaborative awards because bringing these different areas together gives you a different outlook.”

Another key aim of the Institute is to carry out translational research that has meaningful implications for patients. Manchester offers a unique research environment: the city recently took charge of its own health and social care budget, in an initiative known as ‘Devo Manc’. This offers more flexibility in terms of how researchers can integrate research knowledge and clinical trials within clinical practice to provide a joined-up service that takes account of the overall health of individual patients. The city is also home to several independent clinical centres of excellence including the NIHR Biological Research Centre, Health Innovation Manchester and the Cochrane Wounds Group, which all plan to play their part in helping the Becker to translate immunological research into clinical benefits for patients.

The structure of the new Institute

Taking a holistic approach to co-morbidities

With all of these links between translational research and clinical output at their disposal, the Lydia Becker Institute also hopes to promote its holistic approach to patient research. This method ensures that co-morbidities are taken into account, and that patients’ conditions are treated as part of a complex clinical picture. “All of our pre-clinical models are of one disease, but the majority of our clinical patients present with multiple conditions,” Hussell explains. “So, we are trying to take a step back from that very focused science that we have traditionally done and consider the whole patient. We’ve realised that previously, not only were we not doing enough on a specific sample, but we were not appreciating that a patient may have other inflammatory conditions and be on multiple medications.”

Researchers at the Institute are trying to work out what the dominant comorbidities are and how these can be taken account of in studies. “It seems to be a combination of a mental health disorder and socio-economic status (which is linked to conditions such as COPD, obesity and type 2 diabetes) that affects immune response,” says Hussell. However, recognising that patients rarely present with just one ailment, but instead have a range of ongoing conditions that should be considered when developing new treatments, is just the first step – also required are pre-clinical models that reflect this intricacy. “There’s nowhere else that would study all these conditions together. It’s more complex but that doesn’t mean that you can’t get to the bottom of it.”

The Institute is also keen that its different branches work together on specific topics to ensure that more information is extracted from patient samples and, as a result of this, a more accurate picture of overall patient health can be gained. For example, they currently have an ongoing project studying the effects of COPD and smoking on airway lavage samples. “Because the samples are so precious, we have seven different groups working on each sample,” says Hussell. “I look at the macrophage profile, Matt Hepworth examines the innate lymphoid cells, David Thornton studies the mucus samples, Andrew MacDonald the dendritic cells and T cell subsets, and others look at the microbiome. Then, we can come together on a patient-specific basis and you actually get the real answer.”

The facility's overall aim is to unite basic, translational and clinical immunology, removing traditional boundaries to find solutions for today's global diseases.

Early career support

Supporting and nurturing early career fellows is at the heart of what the Lydia Becker Institute hopes to achieve. This goal is important to Hussell: “My mentor was Brigitta ‘Ita’ Askonas and I was one of her scientific family that looked after her in her last few years. She seeded the globe with excellent immunologists and I want to be known for promoting the careers of others as she was.” Since she arrived at The University of Manchester in 2012, Tracy has been proactive in cultivating a new generation of immunologists. “The critical problem at the moment is that when the universities recruit these people, they only offer them a £10,000 start-up fund. It’s really nerve-wracking for early career researchers to go somewhere where that’s all you’ve got. I set up a fund called Prize Postdoctoral Fellowships, where we offer £100,000 start-up costs. Every single person we’ve recruited on this scheme has progressed their career and gone on to generate external funding. We’re now a leading recipient of Sir Henry Dale Fellowships, and also have many BBSRC David Phillips Fellows and MRC Fellows too. We also have a higher than average number of clinical fellows, due to the translational nature of the work being carried out in the department.”

The Institute plans to maintain its ‘bottom heavy’ programme, with more junior than senior researchers that can be trained up – an approach that The University of Manchester as a whole is keen to support. “It’s the young ones within the department that have the best ideas and they are flying along,” says Hussell. “For example, John Grainger joined the department in June 2014 as a Stepping Stones Fellow. He has since successfully applied for a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship and recently became the first recipient of a Kennedy Trust Senior Research Fellowship worth £2.5 million!”

The Becker also uses its links with industry to support young researchers. For example, GSK currently fund a cohort of nine PhD students and six postdoctoral scientists across the different branches. Hussell is keen to keep building these collaborative partnerships: “We have quite a lot of collaborative links with industry. For example, GSK and Unilever are interested in the barrier strand of our work. GSK continues to fund PhD positions outside their normal remit across all of the branches of the Institute. Obviously, this relationship is something we would like to build on in the future.”

Teaching strategy

The Becker Institute has a firm focus on training the next generation of immunologists. They aim to provide undergraduate and masters students with an innovative and practical curriculum to both inspire a love of immunology and ensure students have the knowledge and credentials to take the next step on their career path in the 21st century landscape. “I want to make sure that students who study immunology at Manchester feel that they have a home,” says Hussell. “We are going to draw all the immunology teaching into the Institute to ensure that students feel part of the organisation while they are doing their course.”

Drawing on teaching excellence from within the Institute, they have also decided to take a new approach to the curriculum, focusing on tissue-specific effects of immunology and real-world concepts and implications. “In the second year, as well as learning about innate and adaptive immunity, the students will focus on tissue specificity – how immune cells act in different tissue types and how they go wrong. In the final year, we’ll take them through to advanced new concepts in immunology along with the diseases and how they develop.”

Looking towards the future

It looks set to be an exciting time for immunology in Manchester over the next few years, but the work is not yet finished. “I’ve spent two years developing this plan but there is still more to do,” says Hussell. “The great breadth and diversity represented in the different research branches of our Institute emphasises how immunology and inflammation play an ever-increasing role in modern medicine.” Some of the identified research branch subjects, such as cancer immunotherapy, are relatively new areas for Manchester and the Institute plans to invest in these, building up their research base to match the expertise present in the pre-existing research branches. “It's a really energetic, exciting time for immunology at Manchester and everyone is pulling in the same direction.”

The Lydia Becker Institute of Immunology and Inflammation will open officially on 18 October. For more information, visit www.manchester.ac.uk/lydia-becker-institute.

Interview by Jennie Evans