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Belgian Immunology Society meeting 2017

This year the Belgian Immunology Society meeting was hosted by the Translational Immunology laboratory in Leuven, with the theme "immune regulation". We had record attendence, with dedicated sessions on fundamental immunology, clinical immunology, neuroimmunology and tumour immunology. Great morning talks by Belgian scientists, an interactive poster session, and an afternoon keynote session with outstanding presentations from Anne Puel (INSERM, France), Denise Fitzegerald (QUB, UK), Gabriele Bergers (VIB), Anne Dejean (Toulouse, France) and Gitta Stockinger (Crick Institute, UK). I certainly learned a lot of immunology on the day!

Many thanks to our scientific coordinators and session chairs: Susan Schlenner (KUL), Niels Hellings (Hasselt), Erika Van Nieuwenhove (UZ Leuven) and Abhishek Garg (KUL). The meeting would not have been such a success without Wim Cockx, Caroline Lenaerts and all the volunteers from the lab who helped out on the day.

Great support from our sponsors made it all happen:

Platinum sponsor: BD Bioscience

Silver sponsors: ThermoFisher, Stem Cell Technologies, Sanbio, BioLegend, Bioconnect, Analis, Miltenyi Biotech

Bronze sponsors: VWR, biotechne

Presentation of the EFIS-IL lecture award to Prof Gitta Stockinger (Crick Institute, UK) by BIS President Oberdan Leo. 


Jobs, jobs, jobs!

Two post-doc positions now open in immunology, plus a technician position in the FACS Core, and very soon we will be opening up a new position in endocrinology!



Will pancreatic cancer be the next target for immunotherapy?

Pancreatic cancer is one of the scariest diagnoses a patient can receive. Even though it is a rare disease, with only 1 in 100 people developing it, it is a rapid killer - even with the best medical attention the median survival rate is less than 6 months.

In a study just published this week in Oncotarget, our laboratory looked at the relationship between autoimmunity of the pancreas and pancreatic cancer. We found that mice prone to pancreatic autoimmunity develop greater levels of immune infiltration around tumours in the pancreas, and this substantially slowed the growth of the tumour.

The reason why this result is so important is that it means our immune system can actually combat pancreatic cancer, if we can just drive an autoimmune reaction against the tumour. Here we used genetics to create an autoimmune-prone mouse, but immune checkpoint blockade therapies can create exactly the same pro-autoimmune response in patients. Our results therefore suggest that there is an effective latent response against pancreatic cancer that is waiting to be unleashed by immune checkpoint inhibitors. 

Original article: Dooley et al, "NOD mice, susceptible to pancreatic autoimmunity, demonstrate delayed growth of pancreatic cancer". Oncotarget, 8(46):80167



Off the Bench

An interview on science communication with Off the Bench


Science Minds: Prof Susan Schlenner

This interview of Prof Susan Schlenner by Science Minds is well worth listening to, for a fascinating discussion of mentorship and the ups and downs of a successful career in science.

You can listen to it on the website here, or subscribe to Science Minds podcast through iTunes.


And the winner is...

From our lab retreat last week, the winner of the Golden Pipette Award is... Dr Oliver Burton!

Look at the separation between Foxp3 and IL-2 - it takes golden hands to get such results when working with a cytokine and a transcription factor, let alone when running them as part of a 24 colour panel!


Liston lab does happy hour!

It is time for the Liston lab to organise the VIB happy hour, so we have picked Oktoberfest as our theme!

Disclaimer: the Translational Immunology laboratory does not condone pipetting while drunk, or the wearing of lederhosen in the lab


Prof Susan Schlenner: making a career in science

Next week Dr Susan Schlenner starts as a tenure-track professor in our laboratory.

Growing up in East Germany, Susan started her scientific training with Prof Hans-Reimer Rodewald at the University of Ulm. From 2003-2008, Susan worked on her PhD on protection from the toxicity of snake venoms (J Exp Med, 2007). Dr Schlenner stayed in Hans-Reimer’s lab for a mini-post-doc on T cell development, generating IL7Ra-Cre mice to trace the fate of early T cell development (Immunity, 2010). These mice have become one of the key tools of the field, leading to dozens of high-level middle authorships.

In 2009, Dr Schlenner left to Harvard, to post-doc with Prof Harald von Boehmer. At this point, she entered the regulatory T cell field, again creating new mouse strains to redefine the basic biology (J Exp Med, 2012).

We were lucky enough to recruit Susan in 2012. We had just decided that we needed a top-level molecular biologist when Susan turned up. She immediately solved our problems on a transgenic that we had been struggling with for years, and set up a molecular biology platform in the lab. Susan designed her own high-level projects, and secured independent funding for them, which she is now pursuing with her own team. However Susan has always been ready to drop everything to help out the lab, playing a pivotal role in getting our diabetes story in Nature Genetics, and spending her last days before giving birth generating the key preliminary data for an ERC grant for the lab.

When CrispR editing of mammalian cells first burst onto the scene in 2014, Dr Schlenner spend several years learning the new technique, importing all the tools to Leuven and optimising the process for high throughput genome-editing. The creation of the MutaMouse Core facility was the outcome of this patient work, and will revolutionise biomedical science in Leuven.

With Dr Schlenner achieving the hard-won honour of a professorship, I see lessons in her success that other post-docs could learn from:

1) Train with the best people. In the Rodewald and von Boehmer labs, Susan was surrounded by top scientists doing exciting work. An excellent environment is essential to blossom as a scientist

2) Learn how to do proper experiments. “Controls, controls, controls”, is Susan’s motto, every experiment needs the right controls to understand the result, otherwise it is just expensive play

3) Be prepared to work hard and work long. Experiments often don’t work; it takes grit and determination to tear the hidden secrets out from nature. To create her IL7Ra-Cre strain, Susan generated more than 3000 ES cell clones to screen, before finding the one single clone that set her career on a roll. Others would have given up early, and switched to an easier project, but Susan stayed the course. Persistence is a virtue.

4) Always keep on learning. So often we are scared to enter a field we don't know, or pick up a new technique. It is comforting to stay doing the experiments we already know how to do. Susan has always been prepared to start from scratch as a beginner, learning new techniques such as CrispR.

5) Publish top papers. Immunity and J Exp Med papers as first author, a Nature Genetics as co-last. It sounds obvious, but the top papers are the bed-rock upon which your career is built. If you ever get the opportunity to push a story into the very top level, you seize it and put in whatever effort it takes.

6) Make yourself valuable. Susan has always been a team-player, spending her time teaching others and rescuing difficult experiments. Susan always made sure that the people around her could succeed, rather than only looking out for herself. This was not just rewarded in her dozen middle-authorships, it also meant that she was always someone that her promoters were willing to support in return. Susan’s professorship is in no-small-part a direct consequence of the MutaMouse facility that she was building for the university – she made herself so valuable to the university that they needed to give her a position to make sure she stayed.

7) Stay in the game. It can be depressing looking at the odds of success in academia, but if you are not willing to put in the years, then you have no chance. Susan post-doc’d for nearly 10 years before achieving her professorship: don’t give up on your ambitions.


Gregor Mendel's scientific publications

We were at Gregor Mendel's abby in Brno (Czech Republic) recently, where the key work on pea genetics was performed. Smooth vs wrinkly, green vs yellow, nicely segregating in pea crops.

In retrospect, these were key experiments for the formation of genetics, but you can hardly blame anyone for missing their importance for decades: Mendel was hardly a science communicator. He hardly published his work, and then only in obscure journals, and presented his research in front of a grand total of 40 scientists. Science needs communication!