Second year PhD student
University of Birmingham, Institute of Immunology and Immunotherapy
What is your background and your current research interests?
I studied Natural Sciences at the University of Bath until July 2017. Throughout the degree, I specialised in biological sciences and in particular immunology – studying the function of the immune system, and protein chemistry.
I am now in my second year of a PhD studentship, funded by the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation. The project is entitled ‘T cell epitopes in Autoimmune Hepatitis Type 2: development of novel therapeutics and biomarkers’.
The project involves investigating how the immune system drives liver damage via the recognition of liver proteins. Autoimmune hepatitis type 2 (AIH-2) is a rare and serious liver disease most commonly diagnosed in childhood, often with the requirement for lifelong immunosuppression. This work aims to identify useful biomarkers for early diagnosis of AIH-2 and to develop peptide immunotherapy which may be able to be translated to the clinic for treatment of AIH-2.
What are your research highlights to date?
I am extremely excited and proud to be working on a project which has the potential to develop new therapeutic options for rare liver disease. Last month, I presented a poster at the European Congress of Immunology in Amsterdam and also spoke at the Children’s Liver Disease Foundation National Conference. Both events were fantastic, and I loved discussing the aims and progress of the work with different audiences. At the CLDF conference, I had the opportunity to meet inspirational families, CLDF staff and liver clinical specialists. This was a really unique event and I’m looking forward to the next conference already!
Visualising the 3D structure of enzymes and proteins in the body helps us understand function and potential drug interactions
I have also completed a number of research projects throughout my undergraduate degree, the highlight of which was in structural biology, looking at the immune recognition of mutated cancer peptides from leukemias. I was based at Monash University in Melbourne and loved both the research environment there, and the adventure of moving overseas.
What has been the most challenging part of your research?
The most challenging part has been learning to approach research with a creative and open mind. At school and even at university, you are usually taught to a defined syllabus. In research, you are trying to push the boundaries of what is known. There are unforeseen hurdles and unexpected results – all of which are important to learn from!
What are the future plans?
Depending on the results of the project, I hope that there will be sufficient evidence to support further research or a clinical trial into peptide immunotherapy for treatment of AIH-2, and potentially other autoimmune liver diseases.
I plan to stay in research after completion of my PhD, but am not sure in what field just yet. I enjoy the hands-on aspect of being in a lab and the teamwork that comes along with working towards a common goal. Ideally, I would take the opportunity to move abroad for a few years to gain more varied experience. I’ll have to see if I can get hired first!
Do you have any advice that you would give other researchers?
I would recommend other students or those interested in studying science at university to try to gain relevant work experience in a lab. Many researchers at your local college, university or bio-pharma company are open to taking students on and to showcase their research. There’s no harm in sending emails out to people you find interesting – you may get an amazing learning opportunity out of it
Do you have any comments to provide the patients and families affected by childhood liver disease?
Firstly, and most importantly, I want to extend my most sincere thanks for all your fundraising on behalf of CLDF. Without the studentship funding from CLDF, this research would not be taking place. We all hope that it will further our understanding of Autoimmune Hepatitis Type 2. Researchers have so much to learn from listening to those affected by childhood liver disease and the challenges that they face. I hope that I will be lucky enough to meet more inspirational and brave patients and their families over the coming couple of years and to hear more of your stories.
Naomi’s research poster can be viewed here: Naomi Richardson CLDF poster October