The newly formed Immunobiology and Epigenetics group is headed by institute fellow Dr. Nick Ciccone. The overarching goal of the group is to harness conserved epigenetic processes to accelerate and augment adaptive immune responses that will protect livestock and poultry from infectious diseases. The field of epigenetics is the study of modifications to DNA that promote changes in gene expression without altering DNA sequences.
The Immunobiology and Epigenetics group is primarily interested in epigenetic mechanisms (principally genomic methylation and long non-coding RNA expression) which control the development and activation of the immune system with particular focus on B-cell biology. It is envisaged that determining the epigenetics of vertebrate immune cells will discover unappreciated mechanisms that play fundamental roles in the defence against viruses in a broad cross species manner, an objective made possible with the advent of next generation sequencing (NGS). Such discoveries will be key to developing novel vaccines and adjuvants or alternative therapeutics and diagnostic tests for viral infections.
In ovo (in egg) vaccine delivery is becoming a popular approach to protect commercial poultry flocks from viral infections and is already an industrial standard in the USA. Therefore a better understanding of avian B-cell development will prove valuable when refining such vaccination schedules. We have determined there are changes in global genomic methylation patterns during embryonic avian B-cell development and after viral infections, meaning different genes are switched on and off. This current project will complement these initial findings by harnessing the power of NGS approaches to explore transcriptional and epigenetic changes during chicken B-cell development.
Other projects within the group include determining the significance of the avian and porcine Notch signalling system in immune cell responses to viruses. We are also defining dynamic changes in genomic methylation of naïve and activated vertebrate B-cell subsets with a view to understanding how immunological memory is stored.
A better understanding of the underpinning epigenetic mechanisms that modulate immune responses in poultry and livestock has great potential to improve profitability and efficiency. We have established that genomic methylation, an epigenetic modification, is a dynamic process during the development of the avian B-cell. Further, an economically important pathogen, infectious bursal disease virus (IBDV), can disrupt such genomic methylation patterns to ultimately cause immunosuppression through B-cell death and release of infectious viral particles. A greater understanding of such epigenetic processes will provide us with novel therapeutic avenues for both the augmentation of immune responses and the intervention of viral diseases.