Research Rendezvous: an interview with Jonathan Coquet
Welcome to a new series of interviews where our prominent researchers take centre stage. This week: an interview with Jonathan Coquet
Congratulations on your latest publication "Interleukin-21-Producing CD4+ T Cells Promote Type 2 Immunity to House Dust Mites in Immunity".
Can you tell us about the research that went into it?
‘T helper cells’ are a major population of cells in the immune system. Its been known for more than 20 years that a type of T helper cell called the ‘T helper 2’ cell is central to asthma. In the context of asthma, T helper 2 cells stimulate the epithelium of the lung to secrete factors that attract other inflammatory cells into the environment, thereby initiating a detrimental cascade. In our new publication, we add another type of T helper cell into the mix in asthma. These Interleukin-21 producing cells (typically known as T Follicular helper cells) are very prominent in asthma and are present in high proportion in the lungs. These cells help to promote T helper 2 cells and they work in symbiosis with them, so that without the Interleukin-21 producing cells the T helper 2 cells cannot function properly. This means that if we are able to target and impair the function of these Interleukin-21 producing cells, we may be able to negate the inflammation observed in asthma.
What is your research background?
I did my PhD in Melbourne where I was working on a cell type called NKT Cells. The main focus of my PhD was on cytokine production by these cells. Cytokines are soluble molecules such as interferons and interleukins, which regulate the function of immune and non-immune cells in the body. It turned out that NKT cells were a very special population of cells with a striking ability to produce large amounts of cytokines. Their ability to produce large quantities of cytokines enabled NKT cells to fight cancers and regulate autoimmunity and allergy.
I moved to Amsterdam for a Post Doc for three years and my research focused on T Helper cells and the programming that takes place when they are activated. Finally, for the last few years before coming to KI, I worked in Belgium in the laboratory of Bart Lambrecht researching the role of T helper cells in asthma and pulmonary diseases.
Tell us some more about your current research project
T Helper cells are a large population of cells and are really central to the immune system. Normally, T helper cells are just surveying the environment and are inactive. However, when they come into contact with a virus, bacteria or other threats, they acquire specialised functions to help the body deal with that threat.
Though they can play a good role in fighting cancer, parasites and viruses, helper T cells are also implicated in the pathogenesis of a lot of diseases. These include allergies and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
If we can figure out the key molecules and genes involved in T helper cell function, we can help to target and inhibit the detrimental aspects of these cells and create therapies.
What are your plans for the next few years?
I am following on from my work in Belgium and Amsterdam and creating a research line here, which focuses on the pathogenesis of asthma and muliple sclerosis. In the next few years I would like to use some of the new cutting edge technologies available at KI to understand helper T cells better. As a longer-term goal, I would like to be able to change the way inflammatory diseases such as asthma or arthritis are treated. Currently, the frontline treatment for inflammatory diseases are corticosteroids, which essentially suppress the whole immune system. I would like to be able to get into the intricacies of what makes these T Helper Cells tick to create better therapies that specifically target T helper cells in the future.
Does being at MTC affect your ability to achieve your goals as a researcher?
MTC has been good for me, it’s very multidisciplinary. What drew me to MTC is the diversity of interests and the fact that most of the groups tend to take a fundamental approach to research. They seem to be interested in research for research or curiosity’s sake and that’s what I do: its about wanting to find out new things. The groups here are broad and diverse and it creates a nice environment. I have worked in environments where the focus is only on T cell research and environments where there was little focus at all, but here the blend of groups doing similar and varied things makes collaboration easy.