University of Bristol researcher Dr Borko Amulic has been awarded the Career Development Award by the Medical Research Council (MRC), worth £1.2 million. The money will be put towards his research into the ability of neutrophil immune cells to fight infections in the post-antibiotic age.

The award, which lasts for five years, will allow Amulic to lead a research team at the university’s School of Cellular and Molecular Medicine. He will also gain access to equipment such as that at the Wolfson Bioimaging facility.

Neutrophils are essential immune cells which play a crucial part in the body’s defence against pathogens, protecting people from bacteria, fungi and parasite infections through phagocytosis, ROS production, degranulation and release of neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs). They are the most common type of immune cells found in humans.

NETs are DNA webs which neutrophils release in an attempt to inhibit infections, though this causes the cells to die in the process.

The team will be investigating how neutrophil responses are regulated in the body and how they enact tasks such as engulfing parasites or entrapping them in NETs. They will use tools such as CRISPR/Cas9 to identify genes which regulate human neutrophil behaviour, as well as disease models and patient samples to investigate neutrophils in vivo.

“It is a great honour to receive such a significant award from the MRC and I am confident that together with the talented team of researchers we have here at Bristol, we will be able to make some important breakthroughs into how we fight infection in the future,” Amulic said.

“The emergence of antimicrobial resistance threatens human health and one strategy to combat infection is to boost the natural ability of neutrophils to kill pathogens. It is my hope that this award will allow us to discover the genes and biochemical pathways regulating neutrophil functions so we can do just that.

“I am also very keen to understand how neutrophils contribute to inflammatory diseases. Excessive neutrophil activation often damages our own tissues and contributes to diseases such as autoimmunity and cancer. By better understanding the link, we can begin to investigate how to negate this impact.”

In their research, Amulic and his team have been examining how cell cycle and DNA repair proteins regulate neutrophil effector functions, investigating the hypothesis that cell cycle proteins have non-canonical roles in inflammation and that their deregulation causes dysfunctional neutrophil responses. They hope to develop treatments which target neutrophils in inflammatory diseases such as malaria, autoimmunity and cancer.