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In the fourth instalment in the MRC TIDU Spotlight Series, we take a look at the Drakesmith Group.

The Drakesmith Group is a research group within the MRC Translational Immune Discovery Unit led by Professor Hal Drakesmith. This lab studies how iron deficiency influences human biology. Most of their work analyses how iron controls the function of immune cells and the development of immunity.

In the 1920s the Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg wrote “Life without iron is impossible”, yet iron deficiency is the most common micronutrient deficiency worldwide, affecting at least a billion people. The Drakesmith group investigates why iron is so important. Their research projects range from quantifying iron in individual cells to studying how iron can influence haematopoiesis, anaemia and immune responses in different populations.

In order to work across a variety of scales, researchers in the group are adept at using a variety of different techniques. These include mass spectrometry to quantify iron at the atomic level and study cellular metabolism, genetic tools to map transcriptional and epigenetic changes in iron-deprived cells, and flow and mass cytometry to phenotype cells. The group also uses mouse models to identify how manipulating iron availability regulates immunity. They also lead or partner on several clinical studies and trials, which ultimately are informed by and feed back to the group’s basic lab research.

Research within the group has helped to define the basic mechanisms by which mammals control iron balance and has described how these processes can go awry in disease settings. Members of the lab have shown that the ability to control iron levels is not only important for red blood cells and anaemia but is also critical for the metabolism of immune cells and for immunity.

Speaking about the group, Professor Drakesmith said:

Our lab began as a series of projects that studied iron homeostasis, focusing in particular on the regulation of the hormone that controls iron trafficking, hepcidin. However, as it became apparent that iron was crucial for immunity, linking with several groups in MRC TIDU has allowed us to expand our work to study immune cells and responses in depth, and to translate our findings more easily.

We’re a very collaborative and open group and always welcome looking in new directions. We have managed to build from a small niche to a wider programme by linking with other labs in the MRC WIMM, to our mutual benefit.