The Rehwinkel Group is a research group within the MRC Translational Immune Discovery Unit led by Professor Jan Rehwinkel. This group aims to understand how the molecular pathways involved in virus detection initiate an immune response.
Viruses cause diseases ranging from the common cold to AIDS and COVID-19, and pose the risk of pandemic outbreaks. The immune system can eliminate viruses. It is therefore important to understand how the immune response is kick-started upon infection. The first step is that the cells in the body recognise the presence of a virus. Cells have specialised proteins called receptors that detect viruses; however, how these antennas sense viruses is largely unknown. By investigating the mechanisms of detection, the Rehwinkel Group hopes to understand how the immune response is initiated during virus infection.
One of the hallmarks of the anti-viral immune response is the production of a group of molecules called interferons. Interferons are able to interfere with and block the replication of viruses by instructing cells to activate their antiviral defences. As well as being central players in the antiviral immune response, interferons are also produced during vaccination and are necessary for the development of protective immunity. Moreover, interferons are involved in cancer and may help our immune system to fight malignant cells. Researchers in the group want to obtain a better understanding of the underlying biology, which will be required for the development of new medicines.
A variety of techniques are used to achieve this, ranging from biochemical assays to disease modelling in mice, with cultured cells (of both mouse and human origin) being used most frequently. Experiments conducted by the Rehwinkel lab involve infecting cells with viruses and measuring their responses, for example by determining the amounts of interferon made by them. In some cases, this involves genetic manipulation of cells or the use of chemical compounds such as inhibitors.
The Rehwinkel Group have made a number of discoveries that have shed light on how the antennas of the immune system sense viruses. When viruses infect cells, they introduce nucleic acids into cells, which can be detected by the receptors of the immune system. This nucleic acid sensing is usually an effective defence strategy; however, the presence of vast quantities of cellular RNAs and DNAs in healthy, uninfected cells necessitates molecular mechanisms of “self” or “non-self” discrimination. Some of these mechanisms were discovered by members of the Rehwinkel Group. For example, the group introduced the concept that such Z nucleic acids are important activators of immune responses during viral infections and in autoimmunity.
Speaking about the culture in the group, Professor Rehwinkel said:
We are keen on establishing and maintaining an inclusive and supportive research culture, in the group and wider MRC TIDU. Our aim is to create a work environment in which everyone can achieve their best in a setting that is friendly and enjoyable. Our approach to supervision and support is that there is ‘no one size fits all’. Tailored supervision is available to all members of the group. Another aspect of our work is to consider and implement sustainability; at present, the lab is accredited at the Silver level via LEAF. Members of the group are active in initiatives building an inclusive and fun environment in the MRC TIDU and MRC WIMM, including the organisation of a ‘cake club’ and board game night, a postdoc retreat and activities of the WIMM Graduate Student Association.