Dr Alex Betz
Dr Alex Betz is an immunologist and group leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.
What does your work involve?
As a group leader at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology I'm fortunate enough to be able to completely concentrate on research with relatively little teaching and administrative responsibilities.
My group is trying to understand the initiation phase of immune responses. A wrong decision at this point might either result in a failure to defend the body against invading pathogens such as viruses or bacteria or, on the other end of the spectrum, in an attack of the body itself. The latter is the case in arthritis. By understanding the molecular mechanisms that are involved in this decision-making process, we hope to find new therapeutic avenues.
How long has Arthritis Research UK been funding you?
Since 2005, Arthritis Research UK has been funding two projects in my lab. The aim of the first project is to understand why many women experience an improvement in the symptoms of arthritis during pregnancy. The second one has just started and aims at developing a novel therapeutic approach to treat arthritis and other autoimmune diseases.
What’s the most important thing you've found out in the past 12 months? Why?
We've developed a strategy that promises to allow us to stop immune responses on demand. We were able to show that our approach works in mice. While we feel that there is a long way to go until this strategy can be used in human patients, we're nevertheless very excited.
Our primary aim is to understand fundamental biological processes. Thus, we don't set out to cure a particular disease but instead focus on gaining mechanistic insight. Once we understand how the decision-making process of the immune system works, we can find ways to modulate it.
What do you hope or expect to achieve as a result of your Arthritis Research UK funding?
Our current aim is to extend on our recent finding that we can use genetically modified T-cells in a way that allows us to change their behaviour on demand. This allows us to use them in a ‘Trojan horse’ approach to stop undesirable immune responses. While we're still working hard on refining this approach in mouse models, over the next few years we'd like to examine whether our approach is transferable to human patients.
What do you do in a typical day?
The most interesting aspect of my work is that there isn’t a typical day. My work ranges from planning experiments, giving seminars, discussing results with members of my lab and reviewing grants to the occasional bench work.
Despite the fact that my administrative responsibilities are relatively small, there are still loads of emails to be answered, manuscripts to be reviewed, grant applications to be written and publications to be read. In most cases, progress in research doesn't come from flashes of inspiration but rather from re-examining data over and over again from different angles. I still find it most rewarding when I have the opportunity to do some experimental lab work myself.
What's your greatest research achievement?
Being able to demonstrate that regulatory T-cells (a specialised immune cell type which is commonly associated with the prevention of autoimmunity) play a crucial role in the prevention of the rejection of the foetus by the maternal immune system was clearly a highlight. However, I wouldn't like to dwell too long on past achievements, as I hope the best is still to come.
Why did you choose to do this work?
I'm very nosy. It bugs me if I don't understand how something works. Even as a child I constantly took things apart to find out how they work. To the frustration of my parents I wasn't quite as accomplished at putting them together again. This is probably the reason why they encouraged me to focus on research rather than medicine.
Do you ever think about how your work can help people with arthritis?
Of course I do, and not only out of compassion. I'm very aware that our research is extremely expensive and that there are expectations attached to our funding. I feel fortunate that our research has taken us in a direction where we can see a clear path to direct benefits for patients, even if it'll still take a long time to make it into the clinic.
What would you do if you weren’t a scientist?
The time I started my scientific career coincided with the advent of personal computing and the internet. I found that very exciting too and probably would have started my own web company if I hadn't fallen in love with molecular immunology first.
My family consists of my wife, three children, a dog and a pony. We also used to have a hamster, but that was before the dog…I can't remember ever being bored – not for a minute!
This article first appeared in Arthritis Today Summer 2008, issue 141.