Members of the Anderson lab group
Members of the Anderson lab group.

The University of Birmingham will be part of a ground-breaking £3.5 million collaborative study that aims to engineer a working synthetic thymus – an essential organ in the body’s immune system. By better understanding how the thymus works, scientists will aim to develop synthetic thymus tissue for placement in patients with faulty immune systems.

The Collaborative Award (with £800,000 going to Birmingham) will see the University partner with the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh and Lausanne. It is only the second time the Wellcome Trust has made a collaborative award in the area of immunology.

Professor Graham Anderson, who is project lead from the University of Birmingham, said: “This collaboration will provide essential access to specialised skills that are not widely available. Edinburgh is an excellent centre for stem cell research, Oxford has excellent single cell analysis systems and Lausanne is world leading in tissue engineering. Combining this with the outstanding Immunology in Birmingham makes a world leading team to tackle a key question.”

The thymus is the only place in the body that makes T cells, which are an essential white blood cell type in the immune system. How the thymus works is still unknown. Professor Anderson, commented: “We propose that by establishing a new blue-print of thymus biology at the single cell level, we will understand how this key tissue develops and functions. Based on this information, we can then recreate new synthetic thymus tissue in an informed way.”

Over the last 30 years the University of Birmingham has become an internationally recognised centre of expertise on basic immunology – the study of how the immune system works. Professor Anderson, whose lab has been at the forefront of this, explained how his team would be contributing to the research project: “My lab has generated new mouse lines in which specific cell compartments of the thymus are fluorescently labelled. We can exploit these models by using them to isolate and study new cell types in combination with expertise at the other sites.”

The thymus undergoes dramatic age-related involution, a process where an organ shrinks over time, so few new T cells are made later in life. This limits the success of vaccination in the elderly. It also limits the success of bone marrow transplantation for cancer treatment; the lack of thymus tissue in patients means that T-cell recovery following transplant is very limited.

Scientists propose that by producing new synthetic thymus tissue in the laboratory and placing it into an ailing immune system they can improve T-cell mediated immune responses. These are essential to fight infection and target cancers.

The award will start in January 2019 and the first 12 months will aim to set up links with partner universities. Initially, scientists from Birmingham will be co-ordinating with Oxford to enable analysis of thymus tissues using their single cell technologies.