Simulating the immune system in action

T cells are a key immune cell in the fight to clear infection. In response to infection, T cells are activated through a marker on their surface known as the T cell receptor (TCR), which are the ‘eyes’ of the cell. When the TCR 'sees' an invading pathogen, it triggers a signal telling the cell to differentiate into a type of T cell able to carry out a specific task in the fight against infection.

During his BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship, Dr Masahiro Ono innovated a ground-breaking technology (Timer-of-cell-kinetics-and-activity or, ‘Tocky’, after the Japanese word for time) to measure and visualise the dynamic activities of cells in the mouse body. In this innovation, he developed and established novel transgenic reporter mouse strains for key genes in T cells, major regulators of the immune system, using a unique fluorescent protein that spontaneously changes colour over time and thereby retains temporal information of the gene transcription. The novel transgenic reporter mice allow us to measure how much and how long T cells respond to a stimulation (e.g. inflammation), where these T cells move over time, and how the T cell dynamics can be altered by a treatment, thus producing a completely novel type of data.

Together with Dr Reiko Tanaka, from the Department of Bioengineering, and with support from the BBSRC IAA, a front-end Graphical User Interface was developed that supports the interpretation of the data and results gained from the innovative technology, adding a commercialisation value to the technology. The addition of the GUI to the technology will enable the team to seek external partners and funding as well as strengthen applications to follow-on-funds. It has also been used for further research within the College funded by a BBSRC GCRF award; the novel Tocky technology was used to assess the feasibility of improving the efficiency of vaccine formulations by manipulating regulatory T cell activity, with the ultimate aim of developing vaccines against gastrointestinal nematode parasites of livestock.