Petter Brodin has been appointed as the Garfield Weston Chair of Neonatology and Professor of Paediatric Immunology at Imperial College London.
Professor Brodin joins Imperial’s Department of Immunology and Inflammation as the Garfield Weston Chair of Neonatology, supported by the Garfield Weston Foundation Neonatal Medicine Fund, and Professor of Paediatric Immunology.
Professor Brodin’s research centres on understanding factors that shape human immune system variation in health and disease, and developing new experimental and computational tools to study human immune systems in more comprehensive and holistic ways.
As an active paediatrician specialising in pediatric immunology, his research also explores how and when the immune system is shaped by environmental exposures early in life. In March 2020, his “pioneering analysis of the early development of the human immune system” saw him awarded the prestigious Göran Gustafsson Prize by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Commenting on the new appointment, Professor Jonathan Weber, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, said: “Petter’s expertise in his field is internationally recognised and he will be a fantastic addition to Imperial’s paediatrics community at a very exciting time.”
“The development of our Centre for Paediatrics and Child Health, our Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing, and our role within the West London Children’s Healthcare Alliance puts the College in a commanding position to investigate the common diseases of childhood and to improve the lives of children and young people in West London and beyond.”
Professor Marina Botto, Head of the Department of Immunology and Inflammation, said: “We are delighted to welcome Petter to our academic community. A true pioneer in the field of human immunology, Petter’s uniquely multidisciplinary approach to research echoes our Department’s central mission to integrate discovery science with clinical medicine.”
“His diverse expertise in immunology, experimental technologies and computational analysis will no doubt inspire bold new collaborations across the College in the months and years to come.”
We spoke to Professor Brodin about his research interests and the future direction of his work at Imperial.
Could you give us a quick overview of your career so far – where did it all start for you?
I studied medicine and did my PhD in parallel at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, which is also where I grew up. I completed both my MD and PhD at the same time in 2011, before relocating to Stanford University in the US to complete my postdoc under the supervision of Professor Mark M. Davis. I developed an interest in studying human immune systems and looking at how to integrate new experimental technologies with clever computational analysis methods. I’ve combined this with my work as a paediatrician and these three areas are the basis of what I do now. I'm a clinician who sees patients, but I also run a multidisciplinary lab made up of computational scientists and tech-savvy experimentalists. We bring these different aspects together into our studies of human immune system variation, its development and regulation/dysregulation. I see enormous potential to continue developing this work at Imperial given its strengths in computer science, bioengineering and medicine.
What was it about these combined areas that interested you? Why did you decide to take that route?
I did my PhD in molecular immunology, focused on reductionist research methods trying to establish causal mechanisms using mouse models. However, because I knew I wanted to see patients and work as a physician, I wanted to develop studies of human immune systems and that was challenging at the time. No one was really doing it effectively – or very few people at least. This is partly because it's very complicated to study human immune systems, every individual is so different. This is due to how the system is organised and regulated, there are many moving parts. You need state-of-the-art technologies and advanced data analysis methods to appreciate how the system functions. That's ultimately what drew me into the field, and it’s still the focus of what we do today.
Could you tell us a bit more about the projects that you'll be working on at Imperial moving forwards?
I want to focus on describing human immune systems much more effectively: how they function, how they do not function in various conditions. We really lack metrics of health. We don't know what a healthy immune system looks like, and this is a real problem for diagnosing disease, monitoring treatments, and choosing the right treatment for the right patient. Therefore, we want to continue the work we've started in developing new metrics, both experimental and computational. I hope that we can draw on Imperial’s strengths to carry this work forward, London’s large and diverse population being one. The College’s capabilities in computer science and bioengineering are also real assets. It’s going to be exciting to combine all these things going forwards.
And presumably developing these new metrics of health would have widespread applications?
I believe so. You can imagine their relevance to everything, from infections to cancer to autoimmunity. One of my absolute favourite projects in this respect has been looking at how we give all newborns an optimal start in life, ensuring that their immune systems get properly calibrated and develop healthily. There's a lot of evidence suggesting that early life events imprint on a person's immune system with long term consequences for health. That's another branch of what we're trying to do.
Are you looking at this in different contexts or settings?
Yes, we have begun to do this. We've studied it in a large cohort in Sweden, but we are adding more diverse cohorts, in terms of both ethnicity and environment. It’s going to be essential to look at populations of children born in different parts of the world because globally we see very stark differences in terms of disease burden. There’s a lot to learn.
What would you say have been your major contributions to your field so far?
I think some of our most important contributions have been in beginning to understand how human immune systems develop during the first few months of life. We’re still working intensively in this area. We've also been able to apply computational and experimental methods in new and productive ways. For example, during the COVID pandemic, we've been able to use these approaches to better understand why some people develop severe disease while most people do not. They have also helped us to shed light on new conditions such as the multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), referred to as paediatric inflammatory multisystem syndrome (PIMS) when it was described here at Imperial. We’re making progress in understanding long term COVID symptoms as well.
What aspects of long COVID are you looking at specifically?
Currently, we're trying to study whether the immune system behaves in a dysregulated manner and whether there’s evidence of autoimmunity or a persistent virus. I’m working within a large international consortium called the COVID Human Genetic Effort, in which several other Imperial investigators are also involved. I’m responsible for the long COVID subgroup within this network. We're trying to identify patients who are affected by the most severe form of long COVID for further study.
What are your hopes and ambitions for the next few years?
I want to collaborate with colleagues across the College, particularly Imperial’s computational experts to further advance our work in computational analysis, as well as bioengineers to help us develop our technologies for profiling immune systems. I’m also keen to work with clinical colleagues who have access to large and unique cohorts of patients. I want to connect with colleagues across Imperial to try and move the field of human immunology forwards.
I’m quite young in this role, so I’m also hoping to be able to inspire students and younger physicians to get interested in the combined work that I do in computational, experimental, and clinical research. I think it's really important for the future that we have more clinical scientists, particularly in my areas of research.
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