Infectious disease has shaped human history in many different ways, and it has shaped our genetic heritage just as dramatically. Mapping the genes of human pathogens and of the immune system reveals an ancient arms race, between microbes that struggle to make our bodies their home and the immune system that resists this invasion. Although modern public health measures have reduced the standardised mortality of communicable disease in the United Kingdom to about 7%, this has been with the help of effective drugs, such as antibiotics that help the body fight infection. But micro-organisms are not powerless in the face of these drugs and their ability to evolve in the face of them is an ongoing test for human ingenuity.
At the same time as public health measures have reduced infectious disease, we have also seen a dramatic growth in diseases due to immune dysfunction. The incidence of allergies and autoimmune diseases such as type I diabetes is increasing at an alarming rate. Diseases of the developed world, such as Alzheimer’s and coronary artery disease, are increasingly recognised as having an underlying immune cause. Furthermore autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, uveitis, diabetes and arthritis impose a heavy burden of disability and suffering on the UK population.
Research in infection and immunity addresses fundamental health care questions. How do microorganisms successfully invade the body (bacterial pathogenesis); what molecules allow them to survive treatment (antimicrobial resistance); how can the diseases they cause be managed (meningitis) and how do they cause damage once they have invaded the body’s cells (virology).
Our specific studies of the immune system focus on the means by which the immune system attacks the body and how these can be prevented (autoimmunity); the immune interface between specific organs of the body and the outside world (mucosal and ocular immunology) and how the immune system can be selectively shut down (immune tolerance and transplantation).