Fellow Profile: Dr Joanne Konkel

This is one of a series of posts discussing our 2019 crop of Lister Fellows. Each of the new Fellows were officially awarded their prestigious Lister Institute research prize at our Annual Event at the University of Oxford in November 2019. In this post we meet Dr Joanne Konkel of the University of Manchester.

Dr Konkel’s research aims to understand immune responses and immune control at the oral mucosal barrier.

Mucosal barrier surfaces, such as the gut, lung and oral barrier, are the major interfaces between our inside bodies and the outside world and each face a plethora of challenges, all of which the immune system has to deal with.

For example, each barrier must safely perform its specific physiological function while also controlling the commensal microbes that live at these sites and responding appropriately to pathogen challenge. To deal with such challenges research has shown that highly specialised immunosurvelliance networks have developed in order to ‘police’ these sites and protect the internal body.

As each barrier site is different, distinct immune cell networks are active at different barrier sites, each network being uniquely tailored to that barrier. Research on immune response tailoring at barrier sites has mainly focussed on the lung, skin and the gut, but less is known about the balance of effective immunity and regulation at the mucosal barriers of the mouth.

This is a major knowledge gap as it is known that breakdown of controlled immune responses at the gingiva can result in periodontitis; the most common inflammatory condition that humans face. Periodontitis has also been linked to other conditions such as cardiovascular disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Dr Konkel’s group is interested in understanding how immune cells present within the oral mucosal barriers of the mouth and are educated by local signals to ensure this important barrier is appropriately defended. Dr Konkel’s group has begun to define the tissue-specific mechanisms that ensure effective immune control at the oral barrier and has found that ongoing barrier damage (which occurs naturally through mastication for example) is an important local cue instructing barrier resident T-cell function.

With the support of the Lister Institute Dr Konkel’s team intend to further delineate the local signals and education pathways active at the oral barrier and that instruct other key components of the immune system. Specifically they will focus on monocytes and macrophages, key immune cells important in mediating barrier defence against pathogen challenge and also driving barrier repair.

It is hoped that this work will significantly improve our understanding of tissue-specific control of immune responses at the oral barrier and identify meaningful targets that could be used in the development of better periodontitis therapies, as well as have a broader input into the treatment of inflammatory diseases.

Dr Konkel is a BBSRC David Phillips Fellow at the University of Manchester working in the Division of Infection, Immunity & Respiratory Medicine. You can find out more about Dr Konkel on the University of Manchester website here.

We are very pleased to support Dr Konkel through a Lister Research prize and are looking forward to hearing more about her work in the future.