The Department’s research centres on disease processes of medical and social significance. These disease processes include, firstly, infection by viruses, bacteria and parasites (see the themes of Virology Molecular and Cellular Microbiology and Parasitology). Research in these themes addresses both the strategies adopted by the infective agents themselves and the responses of their hosts. Organisms of recent special interest include viruses in the herpes family, those responsible for influenza, HIV, and SARS, and papillomavirus (associated with cervical cancer); bacteria associated with enteric diseases (eg E coli, Proteus species, and V cholerae); and the parasites responsible for Toxoplasmosis, African sleeping sickness and Schistosomiasis. The Parasitology section of the Department has close connections with Sub-Saharan Africa.
A major part of the hosts’ response to infection – and a second large area of the Department’s research – is the immune system. Innate immunity provides a relatively non-specific mechanism able to attack many different organisms, whilst adaptive immunity is acquired through past experience of infection and leads to highly specific responses targeted to particular organism types. Sometimes these powerful systems, which are normally protective, can be activated inappropriately and so themselves cause disease – the process of autoimmunity, which is responsible for, for example, type 1 diabetes and thyroid diseases and perhaps also inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Research in the Department addresses all of these issues and is described under the Immunology theme.
A third major interest of the Department’s research is in cancer, a group of diseases that share the property of loss of normal regulation of cell growth. Research within the Department aims both to unravel the normal processes of cell signalling, proliferation, differentiation and death and to identify what causes deviation from these normal patterns in cancer (see the Cancer & Apoptosis and Stem Cells & Tissue Regulation themes). Particular research interests are in the biology of the mammary gland, in breast cancer, colon cancer, lymphomas and brain tumours, and in more general studies on the cellular reactions to injury and the control of cell proliferation.
Most disease processes to some degree reflect the genetic make-up of the sufferer. Thus, increasingly, our genes are found to influence our susceptibility to certain diseases and often may limit the extent and nature of our response to infection. These associations with disease risk are commonly found in relation to genes that are highly polymorphic (encoding many sequence variants), such as the MHC complexes (major determinants of the function of adaptive immunity) and the NK receptor complex (a major element in innate immunity). Genes may also be altered in critical ways by environmental or dietary agents that permit the dysregulated growth of cancers. Hence the theme of Genomics (the study of gene organisation in cells and organisms) runs through many of the other Departmental research themes.
Reproductive Biology is another cross-cutting theme in the Department’s research portfolio. On the male side, the organisation of the seminiferous epithelium is a remarkable example of tissue architecture, and relates to various types of male infertility. On the female side, the development of the placenta depends critically on complementarity between elements of the maternal innate immune system and the paternal MHC. Departmental research shows that some of the matches between these polymorphic gene products lead to poor fetal growth and the maternal pregnancy-related hypertensive disorder known as pre-eclampsia.