Dr Woods received her PhD from Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, and has since pursued a research career as an immunologist, primarily in the cancer setting. Most recently, Dr Woods has worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Research Institute (formerly the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research) in Melbourne.
At the Malaghan Institute my research interests are on the involvement of immune cells in allergic disease. A part of the immune system, called the innate immune system, has been shown to be mainly responsible for the development of allergic disease, such as asthma or dermatitis. In many cases the reason for an allergic response to develop is unclear. We are also unsure how, for example, an allergic experience in childhood can lead to development of different allergies in later life – this process is called the allergic march.
My studies at the Malaghan are aimed at looking at the relationship between the gut and other body sites in the development of allergic disease. In particular, we are interested in how the gut microbiome effects the development of the immune system. The majority of our immune cells reside in the gut, and the dynamic interacts between the diet, gut microbiota and our immune cells are fascinating, and only beginning to be understood. Through experimental models we can address these questions to find out more about how these interactions are occurring, and ultimately how we may manipulate them therapeutically.
I am currently involved in two main research projects: atopic dermatitis (eczema) and the skin-gut axis in allergy.
Using an established model, we have shown that when atopic dermatitis develops in the skin, there is an increase in the number of a unique subset of innate immune cells. Our experiments show that these cells are present early in the onset of dermatitis, which suggests that they may be one of the first cell types involved in the development of this allergic disease. Furthermore, when we include a chemical which blocks this innate cell activity in our experimental model, we ameliorate the development of the dermatitis phenotype.
My second project builds on previous studies that have shown the development of an allergic response can be mediated primarily by immune cells arising in the gut, which travel to the site of allergy to evoke an allergic response. Using our established model of atopic dermatitis, we are investigating this phenomenon in the skin. We are studying whether the development of dermatitis in the skin effects proliferation, activation and mobilisation of immune cells residing in the gut. We plan to also determine the role the gut microbiota plays in this setting. These studies will provide insight in the development of allergic march, and may lead towards therapeutic interventions for the treatment of allergy.