Decoding the Immune System PuzzleNanyang Assistant Professor at Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine
The human immune system is a complex maze of cause-and-effect – a puzzle that Dr Franklin Zhong, along with his team at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, hopes to figure out.
His interest in innate immunity was sparked during his postdoctoral training at A*STAR with geneticist Dr Bruno Reversade, when he discovered a new inherited disease caused by mutations in an immune sensor gene called NLRP1. “These patients develop a peculiar skin disorder characterised by recurrent growths on their palms and soles,” he explains. “Sadly, for these patients, some of these skin lesions are prone to becoming malignant.”
At the time, the concept of how a defective immune system could lead to development of cancer was unknown and – to Dr Zhong – a particularly intriguing scientific question. His personal experience with childhood eczema, a condition caused by a disregulated innate immune response, pushed him to pursue this question further. “In hindsight, my first-hand experience with the health burden of immune-related diseases contributed to my interest in this area,” he adds.
Cut to a few years later, and today, the 2019 National Research Foundation (NRF) Fellow leads his own lab at the Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine, focusing on the investigation of how the human innate immune system defends against pathogens – in particular disease-causing viruses – while avoiding attacking the body itself.
For instance, the lab has recently discovered – in collaboration with groups at A*STAR and National University of Singapore – that the NLRP1 protein functions as a sensor for the common cold virus, or human rhinovirus (HRV), in the lungs and bronchus. This finding was published in prestigious scientific journal Science last October.
The discovery could potentially help guide the development of better therapies against virus-triggered asthma and obstructive pulmonary disease exacerbations. While his research plans have been slowed down for now due to the pandemic, Dr Zhong hopes that with time, he will be able to share more discoveries with the scientific community, and eventually get them patented and translated into novel therapies to modulate the immune system.
He credits the lab’s rapid growth to both the NRF Fellowship, which he says has provided him with the support needed to get his lab up and running quickly, as well as the support from his host institution. “I’m very lucky to have assembled a team of talented research assistants and scientists who are passionate about working on some these interesting and medically relevant problems.”
And while the field of immunology has grown by leaps and bounds in the past few years, the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in the past year has surfaced a plethora of new questions and complexities. “There is so much we do not yet understand,” Dr Zhong says. “For instance, we still do not know why SARS-CoV2 is so deadly for some patients while many remain asymptomatic. Is the difference due to genetics or the environment? Why are children less susceptible to severe symptoms?”
Indeed, the pandemic has only strengthened his belief that a better understanding of the way the human immune system works is a pressing medical need, for doctors and scientists alike.
“The ongoing pandemic has exposed the many fragilities of our society, but it has also given us scientists a renewed sense of responsibility and purpose,” he says.
“I hope Singapore builds on the momentum and continues to invest in fundamental research in this area; and hopefully in the near future, it will become a world leader in biotech research and innovation.”