In Profile: Professor Will Wood
12 June 2019
Will studies the immune cells that defend us against infection and disease. When we are wounded these cells rapidly migrate to damaged parts of the body where they detect, ingest and degrade debris, dying cells and invading pathogens. However, too much of a response can cause or worsen a wide range of diseases and conditions including autoimmunity, cancer and chronic inflammation. A greater understanding of how immune cells move and behave is critical for improving human health. Will’s ultimate aim is to help design therapies to direct immune cells away from sites where they are doing damage such as tumours and send them into places where they are needed instead. But in order to achieve this, he first needs to understand how the immune cells respond to the many signals they pick up. What makes the cells move to the wounded areas, dying cells, or the presence of bacteria at a site of infection? Prof Wood and his team study this process in Drosophila (fruitflies) using live imaging in the lab. More specifically, the lab is interested in understanding the underlying molecular mechanisms that regulate hemocytes, the Drosophila embryonic blood cells. Will’s recent paper in Cell (2016) showed that when the macrophages, large white blood cells, ‘eat’ other dying cells, a series of molecular responses follow that ultimately lead to a, memory driven, rapid response of the macrophages to injury or infection. This makes macrophages key therapeutic targets for treatment of inflammatory disorders.
What got you interested in this area of research?
I actually never expected to become a scientist as I wasn’t exposed to much science as a child. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do until my secondary school Biology teacher encouraged me to go to University College London. After my graduation I applied for a temporary job as a research assistant in Prof Paul Martin’s lab and discovered I really enjoyed working in the lab and doing experiments. One thing that really got me hooked was looking down a microscope and following cells around using live imaging techniques. I was lucky as Prof Martin then offered me a PhD. And I thought: yes, it would be great to do this a bit longer. Since then I have always followed what I am interested in and I am still doing that today.
Why did you decide to move to Edinburgh?
Throughout my career I’ve always moved around. After my PhD at UCL in London I moved to Lisbon for a postdoc, then to Bath to set up my own lab before moving it to Bristol. During my time in Bristol I went to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre for a one-year sabbatical. It was science driven, as I wanted to set up a new collaboration with Prof Michael Overholtzer. But on a personal level I was also ready for a change. Sometimes you need a new challenge and to broaden your horizon. That sabbatical was the catalyst to move to the University of Edinburgh. It is undoubtedly the best place to do the research I am interested in. On a personal level I also enjoy the outdoors and climbing mountains, especially if you can combine it with a dram of whisky afterwards. That makes Edinburgh a great place to be.
What does the Institute of Regeneration and Repair mean to you?
The benefit of a large cross-disciplinary collaboration such as IRR is that there are a lot of people with different skills and approaches, coming from different directions. When you work on the interface of different research areas, you work on unexpected things. And that’s where the gold is.
My work focuses on studying immune cell migration using live imaging in a living organism, the fruitfly. But we need to be able to translate our research findings to more complex organisms. I am already collaborating with Dr Yi Feng, Prof Chris Gregory and Prof Stuart Forbes, and am keen to set up more collaborations. With IRR’s clinical expertise embedded within the institute we can work closely with clinicians and make the translational leap a reality.
What are your scientific goals?
Ultimately I am driven by curiosity. I want to understand the genetics underlying the migration of cells. I enjoy doing unexpected things and not knowing the answers to things. For me, that’s the beauty of science. You stumble around in the dark trying to find the light switch.
I also enjoy setting up new research teams. Everybody always brings something new to the team, a different way of looking at things. Training the next generation of scientists is an important part of what Principal Investigators are meant to do. I enjoy enabling early career scientists to thrive and feel fortunate that two of my former postdocs have now set up their own labs – Dr Iwan Evans at The University of Sheffield and Dr Helen Weavers at The University of Bristol.
Want to find out more?
Listen to the Proteus 30min podcast interview with Professor Will Wood