Our research

body-our-research

Research Centres of Excellence

We are continuously investing in major developments, expansion and improvements to our clinical research facilities. Our centres help us to deliver the very latest scientific research findings.

MRC Centre for Immune Regulation

Established in 1999, the Birmingham MRC Centre for Immune Regulation provides a coherent focus for immunology research supported by state of the art technologies. The Centre reflects the international profile of both basic and clinical immunology within the University of Birmingham.

NIHR Birmingham Liver Biomedical Research Unit

The NIHR Birmingham Liver Biomedical Research Unit (BRU) at the University Hospital Birmingham (UHB) was set up in 2008  in partnership with the University of Birmingham as part of a multi-million pound scheme to drive innovation in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of ill-health and to translate advances in medical research into benefits for patients.

Centre for Liver Research

Research into the basic science and translational aspects of human liver disease is a strong focus at the University of Birmingham. Since 2008 the Centre for Liver Research has been a National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Biomedical Research Unit (NIHR Birmingham Liver BRU). The funding was awarded to the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust in partnership with the University of Birmingham In 2011 we were awarded a further 5 years (2012-2017) of NIHR-BRU funding to enable us to continue our translational research programme in liver disease.

Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre

The Cancer Immunology and Immunotherapy Centre (CIIC) is a collaborative grouping of around 30 academic and clinical research groups based at the University of Birmingham and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, collectively focussed on developing internationally outstanding basic tumour immunology research and translating key discoveries into improvements in cancer treatment.

Research themes and groups

Our ultimate aim is to make a meaningful difference in the lives of patients fighting diseases. Our research includes all components of the bench-to-bedside pathway. It focuses on understanding the molecular and cellular control of the immune system and translating this into therapies and treatments for diseases including cancer, autoimmunity and inflammatory disease.

Cellular, Immune and Gene Therapy for Cancer

This research involves the development and clinical trialling of novel therapies for cancer based on two principles:

  • using the specificity of the cellular immune system to recognise and kill tumour cells selectively
  • using vector-mediated delivery to tumour cells of genes that sensitise the cells to chemotherapeutic pro-drugs.

For both approaches, viruses provide an important entrée. Thus virus-associated cancers are key targets of choice for the development of immune therapies, while other viruses provide the key vectors for tumour-specific gene delivery.  

Research groups

Gene therapy

Immunotherapy 

Immunology

Immunology research has been a longstanding strength in Birmingham and since 1999 we have hosted the MRC Centre for Immune Regulation, comprising 40 investigators studying different facets of immune response.

Renewal of the Centre in 2010 allowed us to add new themes complementing and strengthening our basic and translational research on leukocyte migration, with outcomes such as clinical trials targeting chemokines in liver disease and graft-versus-host disease. The Centre and its facilities support the continued development of basic immunology research helping to secure 7 programme level grants since 2009 and drive research into new treatments for autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases. Key research strengths lay in:-

  • T and B cell function in health and disease
  • regulation of haematopoietic cell differentiation
  • leukaemias and lymphomas

Recent findings include identification of bipotent lymphoid progenitors important for lymph node formation; understanding signals involved in the development of germinal centres; uncovering novel links between innate and adaptive immunity for T-cell tolerance; the role of the thymic medulla in the selection of normal and regulatory T cell subsets, and the elucidation of the cellular mechanisms maintaining conventional and regulatory CD4 T cell memory.

Research groups

Liver biology

At the Centre for Liver Research we explore the molecular mechanisms of hepatic inflammation, fibrosis and cancer with a view to understanding the regulation of human disease. This is important because evidence from centres worldwide confirms that liver disease is increasing exponentially and there is a significant need to improve diagnosis, staging and treatment for patients. Thus we combine the expertise of both clinicians treating patients and researchers with wide experience in cell biology and models of disease to address these unmet needs. We also run innovative educational activities and courses for both students and the general public to widen understanding of the significance of liver disease for our population.

Liver damage is caused by a variety of agents including inherited autoimmune conditions, metabolic disorders related to diabetes and obesity, infection with viruses and damage from drug or alcohol exposure. We are investigating all these conditions to discover unique and common mechanistic pathways, and have a particular interest in hepatic immune regulation. Our experimental approach incorporates state of the art culture systems, serological analysis cell phenotyping and imaging analysis as well as functional assays, and we are fortunate to have access to human material donated by our patients to validate and accelerate translation of our discoveries. Results from these studies are in stages of translational development within the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre (as exemplified by the PIANO and IMMUNOTACE trials) and we have partnerships with the pharmaceutical industry (eg Biotie, Chemocentrix, Boeringer) to further develop current projects based on anti-inflammatory therapeutics and cell based immunotherapies.  

Research Groups

Structural Biology and Biomarkers

This work focuses on understanding the molecular basis of cancer causation and progression, and seeks to discover and develop new diagnostic and therapeutic targets and agents.

Structural biology studies are focussed on clinically relevant target proteins including nuclear receptors, signalling enzymes such as kinases/phosphatases, trafficking proteins, specific markers of the tumour microenvironment, immune receptors and novel tumour-associated antigens. These studies chiefly involve NMR and X-ray crystallography technologies, as well as a wide variety of biophysical techniques, chief amongst them surface plasmon resonance.

Clinical application of this work  focuses on the use of these technologies to characterise novel cancer biomarkers with potential for improved diagnosis, prognosis, or more effective patient stratification. Key areas of ongoing study include hepatocellular carcinoma, cancers of the brain and nervous system, and oesophageal and colorectal cancers, many of which are currently associated with a poor prognosis.

Research groups

Structural biology

  • NMR-based studies on protein-ligand interactions
  • Relationship between the three dimensional structures, flexibilities and molecular interactions of regulatory proteins and their biological localisations and signalling activities
  • X-ray crystallography and surface plasmon resonance
  • Structural Biology, Biomarkers and Drug Discovery

Clinical applications

Translational immunology

The breadth and quality of the research environment and infrastructure at Birmingham provides outstanding opportunities to translate research. 

We have access to a large and diverse population catchment area; clinical trials material; clinical trials support; national and international research consortia; outstanding patient databases;  a well organised tissue biobank; clinical MRI research time and expertise in the development of diagnostic and point of care tests longitudinally across diseases.  We work closely with senior academics and statisticians in Health and Population Sciences who are international experts in test evaluation (Jon Deeks).  We also have access to GP networks.  This allows us to explore new developments and point of care tests in both the hospital and the community environments. We are harnessing these opportunities to develop new treatments for patients, identify diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers, undertake new clinical trials and develop new diagnostic tests. We are also developing experimental models of disease to test our findings from patients.

Stratified medicine

An objective of ours, and of our university based regional NHS CPA accredited Clinical Immunology Service (CIS) is to identify and stratify patients.

Our resources provide tools with which to study

  1. Stratification of treatment,
  2. Response to treatment,
  3. Relapse and
  4. Prevention. 

We are combining our understanding of the basic science of immunology, immune mediated diseases and infection with access to patients and patient material through our involvement local, national and international trials and in disease-focused research consortia, to develop ways
of stratifying patients in health and disease. 

Secondary immunodeficiency

Secondary immunodeficiency is a major cause of global morbidity and mortality.  Our expertise in this area is contributing to the development of more effective ways of managing patients at risk of infection particularly the elderly, patients with HIV or other infections and patients with chronic inflammatory disease.

Vaccines

Vaccines are generally less effective with increasing age and co-morbidity.  For example, recent data from the Health Protection Agency have shown that liver disease confers a 40 times risk of pneumococcal infection. We are developing an understanding of the basic immunological processes and factors that may improve and enhance vaccination programmes in the elderly, during stress, as a result of diurnal rhythms and secondary immune deficiency.  We have particular expertise in potential vaccination programmes for pneumonia, HCV and CMV. 

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy, both cellular and antibody mediated, is another emerging area of major interest. Our strengths lay in finding new targets, ways to assess them in preclinical and clinical settings and the refinement of immune effector cells, as well as the use of antibodies as diagnostics.

Tumour immunology

In most individuals the immune system recognizes and eliminates tumour cells. However tumours may overcome immunosurveillance using a broad repertoire of subversive tactics. In this research theme, through investigation of the normal and compromised immune system, we explore the mechanisms by which the tumour cell may tip the balance between immune control and immune evasion.

Research groups