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Bioinformatics: a new era of digital research

11 August 2014

Professor Franca Ronchese is already using bioinformatics to explore the role of a type of immune cells called dendritic cells, in the initiation of allergies. “I am very excited by the new opportunities we have with this technology. We know we are asking difficult questions, but we are also confident that we have the best possible set-up to find the answers.”

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of allergic disease in the developed world, so any information on how allergies might be prevented or better treated has the potential to improve the quality of life for thousands of people.

“Unfortunately, there is still a lot we don’t understand about allergies. We don’t know when or where people were first exposed to allergens, or how this first exposure develops into an allergic response and then disease. We believe that understanding the beginning of an allergic response will be useful in trying to prevent the spread of allergy, and perhaps also in finding treatments to switch it off.”

Professor Ronchese and her team are researching the precise role of dendritic cells in allergies. They are sequencing the whole transcriptome (all the molecules of RNA rather than DNA) of dendritic cells in a mouse that hasn’t been exposed to an allergen and a mouse that has.

“If our research so far is correct, there is something in the dendritic cell of an allergic mouse that starts the allergy, which is not present in a normal dendritic cell. There must be some subtle difference between the dendritic cells in allergic and non-allergic mice.”

Pinpointing that difference, however, is like finding a proverbial needle in a haystack. “That’s where we rely on our bioinformatics team, who will compare the dendritic cells at a molecular level and hopefully find a result for us.”

The search for a switch to turn off unwanted immune responses has been a long-term project at the Institute. Understanding an allergic response at this molecular level has the potential to open up new areas of research as well as leads for immune therapies.