Read about Lucy's work on immunology.
Tell us about your research?
I am an immunologist at heart. I study the immune system. I try and understand how immune responses happen in tissues in places where an infection occurred or damage might have been caused. For example, I work on the immune response in mesothelioma which is a cancer of the pleural space (the membranes that cover the lungs).
I'm interested in how the immune system reacts to cancer and to incoming contaminants or pathogens. I'm interested in how the immune system reacts at the site of the contaminant, in the surrounding tissues.
I want to understand how we can modify that immune response to improve outcomes in terms of illness.
I started out as a parasitologist, understanding how neglected tropical diseases (NDTs) can be cured, or how the immune response can make those diseases worse in some instances. I used to work on Schistosomiasis and how the immune system was activated in response to that disease, and from there I moved on to looking at specific immune cell types, dendritic cells and macrophages which activate the immune system. I'm interested in what's called the innate immune system, which is the inflammatory context that these cells work in.
I grew up in Barrow-in-Furness. Mesothelioma is a big problem in that area because of occupational exposure to asbestos from working in the shipyards. So my research looks at how we can help with that environmental toxin, and other similar industrial structures like carbon nanotubes that are too big for the immune system to clear.
I'd want the impact of my work to be early diagnosis from exposure so we could implement early therapeutic treatments. At present, you can be exposed to asbestos or similar and then it can be forty years before the disease manifests and of course by then it's too late to do anything. If we could say, this person has just been exposed, what can we do to prevent this becoming mesothelioma, that would be ideal.
When you're examining the cells what are you looking for?
I'm looking at what types of fuel immune cells use to activate them, or drive them to keep fighting infections. One of my projects that's funded by the Medical Research Council looks at the presence of specialised types of lipids within the fluid around the lungs, and understanding how uptake of those lipids may change the way that the cells work and to maybe improve inflammation - so to calm it down, or make a reaction turn off - , or how the lipids might make those cells change their phenotype so they could become more anti-asthma or anti-cancer.
What have you seen that has changed and got better and improved over your career from starting out to where you are now?
Our ability to sequence cells. We can now understand what RNA is being made by every single cell in pretty much any tissue. We can now break down tissue and understand what's going on a single cell basis.
Are you hopeful for the future because of some of the research that you're involved?
Yes! I'm one of the most hopeful people you'll ever meet.
We might not know how the work we do at the bench will have an impact or contribute to the wider body of knowledge, but we have to keep doing these things because the information we find does result in breakthroughs. Being able to make the COVID vaccine in under 18 months was phenomenal, and that was based on obscure technology utilising RNA that happened decades ago. And the person didn't get much recognition for it at the time but that's the reason that we can now make those vaccines so quickly, and we have those pipelines available.
Any disease you pick, we now know so much more about it than we did a decade ago or twenty years ago. Everything we do adds to that wider body of knowledge.
We might not know how the work we do at the bench will have an impact or contribute to the wider body of knowledge, but we have to keep doing these things because the information we find does result in breakthroughs.