Dr Tim Regan on human immune cells
Using gene editing techniques to reveal information about immune cells, and sharing a life-long curiosity for science.
Dr Tim Regan is a postdoctoral researcher at The Roslin Institute. In this interview, he talks to Science Communication Intern Maggie Szymanska about using gene editing to study interactions between disease and its animal and human hosts.
Tell me about your work in a nutshell.
I am interested in interactions between pathogens, which cause disease, and the individuals they affect. I’m working with Roslin group leader Dr Kenny Baillie, who has a lot of experience using a specific gene-editing screening technique called GeCKO, meaning genome-scale CRISPR-Cas9 knockout.
We are using this great tool to discover information about human immune cells involved with killing bacteria inside cells.
I also work with Professor David Dockrell from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Inflammation Research, who has a lot of experience researching pathogens that cause infections, such as Streptococcus pneumonia, which causes pneumonia.
I’m working with human macrophages – cells that fight bacteria and other harmful organisms – to identify ways to make them better at killing bacteria within cells.
The main point is to overcome resistance to antibiotics. Instead of giving patients antibiotics to kill bacteria, we want to make their own immune cells better at killing the bacteria, making it more difficult for the bacteria to evolve resistance.
How did you become interested in this field?
I’ve always liked thinking about how things work and science in general. However, it wasn’t until university that I started doing more biology and straight away I became interested in immunology.
I loved the idea that every organism has a surveillance system that could recognise between friend and foe. Since then I have mostly worked on human immunology – more specifically on how inflammation is regulated. I have been involved in different projects over the past few years, but the main theme has generally been immunology and how it is regulated. It just really fascinates me.
What are you working on at the moment?
Right now, as well as looking at human immunology, I have been using GeCKO to screen the genomes of pigs and chickens – identifying genes linked to particular diseases.
For example, Dr Kenny Baillie did a GeCKO screen on humans using flu. I’m now using the exact same type of virus in a screening of the genomes of pigs and chickens. This will allow us to compare factors, such as susceptibility or resistance to infection, between the three host species.
Looking at three different hosts which have different susceptibilities to the same type of flu can tell us a lot about the host and about the virus.
In the future I’d like to research more into other animals, such as salmon.
How would you say your research applies to the real world?
One of the things I’m working on is figuring out how to get macrophages to kill bacteria more efficiently, which could eventually lead to no-one needing to use antibiotics. I think of this as a direct application but of course, in the real world, everything takes time. First we’ll discover a therapeutic target in cells, then we’ll validate it and create chemical compounds that hit those targets. If that happens and it all works, in a couple of years, human trials could start.
Do you have a favourite project you could tell me about?
One of the projects that I loved working on was very different to what I’m doing now. In my first postdoctoral position, my Roslin colleague Dr Mark Barnett and I were looking at the genomics of the bee. What started as a pilot project really took off.
I enjoyed that project so much because I learnt a lot of new skills and I worked in areas I hadn’t before, such as bioinformatics and genome analysis. We managed to create a whole database of information on bees in Britain and it told a really cool story. I think that was definitely one of my favourite studies, I really enjoyed it. It was just so fun and different.
Could you tell me about a challenge you’ve faced as a scientist?
A challenge that many scientists face is that you never really switch off. When you’re on holiday, you’re always thinking about what you’ve left in the lab and what you’re investigating. It’s the same in the evenings and on the weekends. And, of course, it is a challenge but it’s also because I just really love my work, which is a great thing.
How did you become a scientist?
Almost by accident, if truth be told! I think that is quite common among scientists, although often people won’t admit it. In my case, I’ve always liked thinking about how things work. My dad was a maths teacher and he always encouraged me to be interested in asking ‘why?’ about everything. When I grew up I decided to study biology and I kept following what I liked doing and I found myself becoming a scientist. It was never something I sat down and decided, I just kept doing what I found interesting.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you would be?
When I was young I always wanted to be a palaeontologist. Now that I’ve said that aloud, I realise that that is just a different type of scientist job, so that’s probably not the best answer!
If I had to go completely outside science, I think I would love to do something like seaweed farming. I love being by the sea, and I think that it is a very cool industry.