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Dr Kate Sutton on immunology in chickens

Forging a career in avian biology, filling gaps in fundamental understanding of immunology, and motivation from inspirational colleagues.

Dr Kate Sutton

Dr Kate Sutton is a Career Track Fellow at the Roslin Institute whose work focuses on understanding avian immunology to inform development of poultry vaccines. In this interview, she reflects on her career to date, outlines her ambitions for managing her own research lab, and shares her optimism for informing vaccine design.

What is the focus of your research?

The focus of my research is the immune system of chickens. I investigate the function of immune cells and the role they play in how birds respond to vaccination and disease. By understanding what immune cells do, we can consider how to take advantage of this knowledge to enhance vaccine development.

Our main focus is on dendritic cells and macrophages - these cells are part of the innate immune system, so they play an important role in mounting the immune response at the first phase of infection or vaccination.

By building up basic knowledge on where these cells are located throughout the body of the chicken, and what role they play in immune responses, we can develop strategies to target their particular functions that will enhance the immune response, and provide better protection against disease.

What led you to study avian immunology at Roslin?

I studied a biochemistry degree at the University of Galway, followed by a masters in Drug Design and Biomedical Sciences, which brought me to Edinburgh Napier University. I had visited Edinburgh the year prior to undertaking the masters and I just knew I had to come back and continue my studies in the city.

It was during my masters that I got to undertake a summer internship at the Easter Bush campus, working on chronic wasting disease in deer. I went from studying the design and applications of drugs for treating human diseases, to focusing on animal health.

Undertaking the internship exposed me to the veterinary research taking place at Easter Bush campus and sparked my interest in studying host-pathogen interactions in veterinary species. This then led me to undertaking a PhD in avian immunology and I’ve been working in this field ever since.

I was quite lucky to study under the late Professor Pete Kaiser at the Roslin Institute and to work as a post-doctoral researcher in Germany with a group who had developed a novel immune cell knockout chicken, which enables us to study the effect of loss of cell function. 

The development of transgenic chickens, which have DNA from another species added to their genome, has really advanced over the years, especially at Roslin, improving our ability to study the function of different immune cells.   

How did you transition from human to animal science?

To get up to speed for my PhD, I taught myself immunology by reading textbooks. Having the masters was a good grounding in stepping up to the next level.

I really enjoyed my PhD. My supervisor was very supportive and the environment was great. I was left to my own devices a lot – I never want someone to hold my hand.

One thing I liked about moving towards studying avian immunology was that knowledge in the field was limited compared with human and mouse biology – there is a lot more to be discovered about how avian cells behave. What we know in mice is not always true in chickens, mostly it doesn’t translate, we like to say ‘a chicken is not a mouse with wings’.

Despite the high use of vaccines in poultry, we still have much to learn about how their immune system works. As a researcher, you’ve got to set about trying, with the resources that you have, to figure out these things. That’s what I love about my job.

Congratulations on winning a Roslin Career Track Fellowship. What was your motivation for this?

I always wanted to run my own group and be independent, to be the person driving the research. I wanted the opportunity to focus on an area of research that I enjoy.

The award means I can set up my own lab, establish my own direction and show that I can be self-reliant and secure funding. It’s an opportunity to step out of the shadow of the person you’ve been working for, get recognition and develop your own reputation.

When I heard I’d won a fellowship, I was quite emotional. It’s a tough process, a long haul, but it’s worth it. Even to get to the interview stage is an accomplishment in itself.

What will your fellowship focus on?

We want to investigate dendritic cells to understand more about what happens when chickens are challenged with disease, or when they are vaccinated. We want to fill that knowledge gap.

In our first couple of years, we want to demonstrate to industry that it’s quite important to look at these cells. Vaccines used by industry are administered via birds’ drinking water or a spray into the air, so it’s important to look at the effect on these cells in the chicken respiratory and intestinal tracts.

We may make discoveries that mean we can administer less vaccine, or give one dose instead of two. At the end of the fellowship, I hope we’d have some better understanding of dendritic cells in the chicken respiratory and intestinal tract.

How do you approach working in an understudied area?

When working to understand the immune system of veterinary species, you do have to be creative, to build the knowledge. You hope that the community takes that knowledge on board in further research.

For example, because of work done at Roslin, in future others will be able to identify a dendritic cell, or a macrophage cell, because the literature is there.

I hope our fundamental research will cause other people in the field to think deeper about what they’re looking at in terms of cell types and what they’re measuring when it comes to designing new vaccines or looking at new strains of pathogens.

What are the benefits of carrying out your research at Roslin?

We use transgenic chickens from the National Avian Research Facility (NARF), which is based here. They are a great team and I love having access to that facility on site. In the next couple of years, I’ll be using these birds to gather fundamental information about immune cells.

Roslin’s Immunological Toolbox is a really good resource for us, they have the expertise to make antibodies and proteins that you can’t buy off the shelf for some veterinary species, which is fantastic. I can’t think of anywhere else you could do that.

I also do a lot of work involving cells, and rely on Roslin’s bioimaging and flow cytometry facilities with that. We look at cells to see where they are located, what their surface markers are, what they are expressing, how they are functioning, and how they destroy pathogens. Bird flu has heightened interest in vaccines and Roslin is a core site for collaborators in that area.

I also love the people here at Roslin. My work friends are really important to me. We make time for coffee every day just to swap notes on what we’re all doing, and catch up. I met a good friend here during my PhD and we still work together.

What challenges have you faced?

Academia is such a fickle career; you can find yourself with a succession of short contracts and end up with nothing. It’s hard to plan ahead. I was fortunate to have six consecutive years of funding at Roslin, including a pump-priming award from the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network, before receiving my Career Track Fellowship. However, maintaining continuity can be challenging at times.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would you choose?

I would invite my late PhD supervisor Professor Kaiser to my dream dinner party, it would be lovely to see him one more time.

If I was to go with someone famous, it would be the investigative reporter Nellie Bly. I am a big podcast fan and recently listened to an episode about her extraordinary life, such as highlighting the mistreatment of patients in hospitals and travelling around the world in 72 days. 

If you weren’t a scientist, what else would you be doing?

I worked in bars for many years when I was younger, and I love the interaction and chat with people. It’d be great to run my own restaurant or small hotel but in reality, I probably would have become a science teacher. I used to have ambitions to be a social worker but, since I love talking as much as listening, it wasn’t a natural fit for me.

After that, I reflected on what else I might do and realised science was perfect. I’ve always loved science since I was a child, and I still love it as much as ever.

Related links

National Avian Research Facility

International Veterinary Vaccinology Network

Roslin Institute Career Development