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PhD students work to improve lives of people with autoimmune diseases

25 June 2018
Meet the PhD students researching MS and other brain autoimmune disorders
The Brain Autoimmunology group at Westmead is working hard to improve the lives of patients with a range of brain autoimmune disorders.

Situated within the Kids Neuroscience Centre at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead, the Brain Autoimmunology group is working hard to improve the lives of patients with a range of brain autoimmune disorders.

Brain autoimmune disorders come in all shapes and sizes – but all share a common thread: the body’s immune system, for whatever reason, targets and attacks brain and nervous system cells and proteins.

The hope is that by learning more about these disorders, researchers can improve patient outcomes with more accurate diagnosis and more effective treatments.

Among other autoimmune disorders, the group studies demyelinating disorders.  This class of disorders is characterised by nerve damage that occurs when the body’s immune system attacks myelin – the fatty tissue that protects nerve cells in the brain and throughout the body.  Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is the most well-known disease of this type, but the group studies a number of other similar diseases.

The hope is that by learning more about these disorders, researchers can improve patient outcomes with more accurate diagnosis and more effective treatments.

“Gaining a greater understanding of how these disorders unfold is paramount to improve and develop new treatment options,” says University of Sydney PhD candidate Fiona Tea.  

Fiona Tea, PhD candidate in the Brain Autoimmunology Group at the Kids Neuroscience Centre

Fiona Tea, PhD candidate in the Brain Autoimmunology Group at the Kids Neuroscience Centre

Her research examines how the autoimmune component of these disorders manifests.  “In patients with these disorders, immune components called antibodies, which usually fight off pathogens, go rogue and healthy brain proteins instead.  I look at this immune response and examine what other immune cells these antibodies may interact with to cause disruption of the brain.”

The group also houses the Brain Autoantibody Testing Referral centre, where they provide diagnostic tests for patients with disorder patients and directly supports patients’ treatment journeys.

PhD candidate Angelo Lopez is driven by this desire to make a difference in someone’s life.

“When it comes to my career, making as big a difference as possible has always been a driving factor. Our research is a rewarding, hands-on experience where I can work towards making a difference in the lives of patients with autoimmune diseases.”

His work within the group examines immune cells that target specific proteins in demyelinating disorders – a path that he started in 2017 when he was an Honours student with the same group, along with a number of other students who are now completing their PhDs with him.

“Meeting such a great team of colleagues and friends with whom I decided to continue my postgraduate studies is what I’ll cherish most and what I’ll remember for years to come.”

Angelo Lopez, PhD candidate at the Brain Autommunology Centre at the Kids Neuroscience Centre

Angelo Lopez, PhD candidate at the Brain Autommunology Centre at the Kids Neuroscience Centre