Our Bimal Desai, PhD, has discovered an electrical switch within a certain type of immune cell that could let us treat inflammatory diseases including inflammation of the brain, as seen in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, for the first time.
What he found was that this switch, called an ion channel, controls the flow of calcium into immune cells called macrophages. Block the calcium entering through this ion channel and you can stop the inflammation. This could be useful not just against inflammation such as seen in arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease but also chronic inflammation seen in cardiovascular diseases and in the brain, where most biological drugs can’t reach.
His team was able to make this discovery because of something rather rare in immunology labs: the additional ability to do both electrophysiology – the study of the flow of electrical currents in cells and tissues – and calcium imaging in living cells.
“Both techniques are fairly sophisticated and require a great deal of experience to do right,” said Dr. Desai, of the Department of Pharmacology. “You are dealing with complex equipment, you have to have a good understanding of imaging, optics and biophysics. The training required is in order of years and it requires a significant amount of time to get good at it. The physical setup is not easily established, so if an immunologist comes across an ion channel in their area of disease they’re interested in, they can’t just say, ‘OK, we’ll start doing that in the lab.’ That depth of technical talent is a big help when it comes to research like this.”
Because Dr. Desai’s lab can do both electrophysiology and calcium imaging in immune cells, he gets requests from immunologists all over – so many he can’t keep up. “These are skill sets that are now heavily courted throughout the nation” he said.
He noted that there is a shortage of expertise in electrophysiology in general. UVA is fortunate to have several expert electrophysiologists, such as Douglas Bayliss and Julius Zhu, two outstanding neuroscientists in the Department of Pharmacology.
We’re lucky to have such technical abilities, and we’re also lucky to have great expertise in the white-hot field of neuroimmunology, which studies the interaction of the nervous system and the immune system. You may recall that our Dr. Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, made the astounding discovery that the brain is connected to the immune system by vessels long thought not to exist.
“UVA is very strong in neuroimmunology, with Dr. Kipnis and BIG [our Center for Brain Immunology and Glia],” Desai said. “So I think we sit at a great juncture in history where we have the right technical expertise to move forward but also an environment here to do ground-breaking neuroimmunology that is tremendously strong.”