4 April 2023
Ten years after completing his PhD at the Malaghan Institute, Dr Marcus Robinson recently returned to share the research he currently conducts as a Senior Research Fellow at Monash University in Australia.
Originally from Whanganui, Dr Robinson came to the Malaghan Institute to do his PhD after studying at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.
“I remember the journal clubs we had at the Malaghan, which were always full of hearty discussion. You had to be sure to prepare by reading the paper beforehand, as the PhD students would be called on at random to present figures from the study. It was a refinement by fire, or at least it felt like it! It proved invaluable training in the longer term,” says Dr Robinson.
With Professor Graham Le Gros as his supervisor, he investigated what can make milk proteins allergens. Specifically, he was studying role of a molecule called IL-4 in the regulation of allergy-causing IgE antibodies.
“During my PhD studies I became fascinated by allergy-causing IgE antibodies. They are very rare, and don’t seem to follow the normal rules for antibody responses. I really wanted to understand the role of antibodies in allergies and other diseases,” says Dr Robinson.
The research he did during his PhD helped him to decide the research area he would go on to specialise in.
“My PhD made me realise that before learning about antibodies in a disease state, there’s so much still to discover about antibodies in the healthy state. We need to know about that to understand what is dysregulated in disease settings. Currently, I get to study both sides,” says Dr Robinson.
“We study the cells that make the antibodies that protect us from infections. We are defining the genes that regulate their survival. It is quite interesting, because for some vaccines, the cells die in a few months, whereas others generate antibody-secreting cells that survive for a lifetime.”
Dr Robinson and his team at Monash University are trying to understand what genes are expressed in long-lived antibody secreting cells that are not expressed in the cells that die earlier.
“By studying this, we hope that one day we can programme the antibody-secreting cells to be long-lived in a controlled way. Ultimately, we are trying to understand how to make vaccines that protect for longer.”
His research also has potential implications in developing treatment for allergies and other autoimmune conditions.
“Knowing the genes and proteins that make antibody-secreting cells live for long periods might provide druggable targets for autoimmune diseases caused by dysregulated antibodies,” says Dr Robinson.
“Knowing our research might lead to a change in the clinical approach to allergies, autoimmunity and vaccine biology in the coming years motivates me to keep going.”