Clinical Connections  –  Spring 2020

By Dirk Werling, Professor of Molecular Immunology

The RVC’s research facilities are currently being revamped to stay at the cutting edge of the demands we need to fulfil. One of these demands is the greater impact of basic research and research equipment to closer link research and clinical impact, whether this is on a large scale for farmed animals, or on a small scale for a ‘personalised medicine’ approach in companion animals.

Within the current investment of the RVC at the Hawkshead Campus, and with support from Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the Animal Care Trust, we were able to purchase two state-of-the-art Fluorescence-Activated Cell Sorter machines, a new microscope to enable researchers to perform live-cell imaging, and a multicolour ELISpot Reader to allow precise enumeration of active immune cells. 

What does this new equipment allow us to do?

First, the Fluorescence-Activated Cell Sorter (FACS) analyser: Each cell in our body expresses a specific set of molecules on their surface, similar to a postcode, which allows us to detect these in, for example, peripheral blood. Monitoring the occurrence and decline of specific markers on the surface of cells is already used in human medicine to identify circulating leukemic cells, to assess the effectiveness of treatment of cancer therapy, and to assess the impact of, for example, antibiotic treatment in the case of infectious diseases.

Indeed, the occurrence and decline of specific markers can be used to show that an infection has gone, and thus can reduce the time for which antibiotic treatment is given. This approach is already performed in human neonatology, and we are developing combinations of marker-specific antibodies which would allow us to perform similar tasks in animals. An example of the identification of specific cell types is shown in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Developing combinations of marker-specific antibodies can allow for disease monitoring

Secondly, we have also been able to purchase a FACS Sorter, enabling us to push the above described technology even further. Here, we are able to ‘tell’ the instrument to deposit one cell per well of a 96-well plate. This method is extremely useful when subsequently analysing the genome of cancer cells or cells responding to a new vaccine, allowing genetic transcripts to be identified. Indeed, by combining this technology with our new 10x Single Cell Genomics facility (also funded through the LEP), we will be able to analyse on a single cell level what differentiates cancer cells/cells responding to a treatment from other cells, allowing new treatment strategies to be developed.

An example of the power of this machine is shown in Figure 2 below, where one enzyme-coated particle was deposited in wells containing the substrate solution.

Figure 2: One enzyme-coated particle was deposited in wells containing the substrate solution. Image courtesy of Heather Harris

Finally, our new live-cell imaging microscope. This technique allows us not only to achieve amazing pictures (see image below), but also to see whether the cells we are working with (for example cells sorted with the FACS Sorter) are really those cells we would like to have.

We believe that these three pieces of equipment will allow us to combine basic and clinical research in ways we have not been able to do to date, thus impacting on the development of new treatment strategies for infectious diseases, specific forms of cancer, and to progress our groundbreaking work in stem cell technology to the next level.

A cardiac stem cell, showing cytoskeleton in red, muscle fibres in green and nuclei in purple. Image courtesy of Luke Dutton.

Veterinary Vaccinology and Cell Therapy Hub

The RVC has been awarded a £7m Local Growth Fund grant by Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership to develop a new state-of-the-art Veterinary Vaccinology and Cell Therapy Hub at the Hawkshead Campus.

Due to open in the summer, the Hub will contain specialist facilities, including laboratories, housing for animals and an incubator for small businesses, as part of the wider, multi-million-pound redevelopment of the Hawkshead Campus.

The Hub will help strengthen Hertfordshire’s position as a global leader for vaccine and cell therapy research and add to the growing cluster of expertise within the county, enabling a fast transition of new knowledge from academia into industry.

For more details see Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership

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