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Life is good. Inflammatory bowel disease – the immune and gut bug connections

Posted on over 2 years ago by Laurentina Kennedy

Innovation Rd (002)

Life is good. Inflammatory bowel disease – the immune and gut bug connections

Research Lives: Prof Subrata Ghosh, deputy director of the APC Microbiome Ireland UCC

Your research focuses on inflammatory bowel disease – Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. What sparked your interest there? I did my medical training in India and worked as the only doctor in a village of 150,000 people there. I saw patients with many different conditions and I became very good at delivering babies and managing gut infections, but I did not see patients with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD, until I moved to Edinburgh in Scotland, where it was affecting many young people and their quality of life. 

How did you expand your research on IBD? 
I took up research posts in the UK and Canada, and our work suggests that while patients may have a genetic predisposition to developing Crohn’s disease in particular, the rapid rise of IBD in the western hemisphere screamed out that the environment likely plays a role, because genes don’t change so rapidly. The working hypothesis is that something is getting into our guts, maybe through what we eat, and leading to these diseases becoming more common. 

How did you decide to move to Ireland? 
I was a scientific adviser for APC Microbiome Ireland, where researchers have very impressive expertise in the gut microbiome and food, and I wished I worked there. It struck me that within this triangle of gut microbes, food and the immune system is where we stand to find more effective treatments and possibly even cures for some inflammatory diseases. So when the opportunity came up to apply for a Science Foundation Ireland research professorship here, I took it, and moved to University College Cork during the pandemic as head of medicine. 
SFI awarded you €5.6 million to set up a new research lab at APC Microbiome Ireland. Was it a challenge to start during a global pandemic? 
The pandemic gave me time to think deeply about how to harness global networks of collaborators to explore the questions we are asking in this research. We don’t often get time to think, so this was welcome, even though the pandemic itself wasn’t. 

And what is your research focus in Cork? 
Since my days in London, my interest has been in the innate immune system, a line of defence in our body just behind the wall of the gut. Our research on the new Augment project in Cork is looking to better understand what happens when the immune cells, and particularly macrophages, are exposed to environmental “insults” or factors through the gut. It’s a working hypothesis, but if through gut microbes we can create an environment where the inflammatory response of the body’s innate immune cells is dampened down, then perhaps we can reduce the impact of IBD. 

What drives you to keep going with the research? 
I have always been driven by the needs of patients. It’s important that as researchers we involve and listen to patients, and learn from their experiences and understandings of their disease. I do the research to help solve problems for people, and that gives me a sense of direction and urgency. I am also driven by the task of training others in this research too. 

And finally, how do you take a break?
I love reading and music, and I’m enjoying learning more about Irish literature and song. I also love exploring new places, and there is plenty to discover in Cork, including Kinsale, which is a great foodie stomping ground.