Meet the researcher: Professor Muzlifah Haniffa
In our fourth ‘Meet the researcher’ post, we talk to Muzlifah Haniffa, Professor Professor of Dermatology and Immunology at Newcastle University, a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science, and a Lister Institute Prize Fellow.
She was elected to the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2020, and is an Associate Faculty at Wellcome Sanger Institute. Professor Haniffa is Lead for the NIHR Newcastle Biomedical Research Centre’s (BRC) Skin and Oral Disease research theme.
What drew you to the field of dermatology?
I am a dermatologist by trade. From a research perspective, I was born into immunology, married into developmental biology and firm friends with single cell genomics.
In terms of dermatology, I was fascinated by the skin; as a functional and physical organ which is connected to the whole body and provides an immune barrier. It also fascinated me that we transition from an aquatic to land environment, and how our skin needs to change for us to do so.
What challenge are you currently trying to address in research?
How cells develop so into a functional unit to maintain health, but also what goes wrong and results in disease. How can we prevent and treat this? Cells are what the whole body is made up of, so I am addressing the general working of cells; how they come together to make organs and what can we do to treat and prevent diseases that are also caused by dysfunctional cells.
What difference will this research make to patients?
Learning more about cells and their functions will inform us about how we can treat and prevent diseases that affect people’s lives.
Can you give us a snapshot on immunology within your research?
Immune cells are everywhere and are present from very early on in our lives (from 2-3 weeks after conception). Our prime understanding of the immune system is for protection against pathogens and viruses. We now know that they are very versatile and also play a role in maintaining healthy tissue as well as protecting against illness. We assume that health is a default state that doesn’t require maintenance, but there is a lot of work that goes into keeping us healthy and allows our bodies and organs to function the way that they do. It is only when things fail that we see how important this ongoing maintenance has been to ensure things function normally. It is a like a good marriage; so much work goes in to keeping things working well, it isn’t just about avoiding the things that don’t work well. So in the body, it is just as important to understand how cells do what they do to maintain our healthy state. Some unanswered questions here are does the body use the same or different immune programmes to maintain healthy state as well as protect against infection? Is the immune system the same in all organs? An integrated network and understanding will enable us to understand the whole network of immune cells in the body, that will be far greater than the sum of its individual components.
What role do patient cohorts and wider partnerships and collaborations play in your research?
Patient cohorts bring a wealth of strength and diversity to research. No-one is an expert that can work in isolation, we need to work together – for scale and expertise. We also need diversity of thinking and view points – we need to know what patients who are living with illnesses need. Having multiple stakeholder input is the best way to design a research programme that will be widely beneficial and deliverable.
What role does industry play in your research?
Likewise, industry gives an extremely valuable perspective too. Industry colleagues have viewpoints and expertise that we don’t have in an academic institution. It is important to work with people who understand the challenges of getting good treatments to patients, as this will be able to shape what one puts forward for research. We need diversity of opinions and strength of collaboration, and this academic/industry collaboration is just as important as that with our fellow scientists and patients. The idea that a researcher will know everything is impossible, and therefore working in collaborative pursuit, with experts, is the best way to accelerate the translation of scientific knowledge into therapeutics and diagnostics – ultimately to benefit patients.
You are a key part of the Human Cell Atlas (HCA) project. What benefits will the HCA bring to research and patients?
HCA aims to map 37 trillion cells in our body, and is a reference map for us to interrogate disease. The HCA is a rich resource for scientists and industry partners – for them to use and analyse data collected on all cells in the body.
For the Skin Cell Atlas, we are working collaboratively across different groups – genomics, bioinformatics, skin, imaging, etc, to understand what the composition of healthy human skin is, how it develops and how it is changed in two of the most common inflammatory skin diseases; eczema and psoriasis. We have also created a web portal which everyone can access to interrogate this rich data set for research.
Our study revealed an astonishing finding linking developmental cell programmes with inflammatory skin disease. We found that the same programme that recruits cells into the skin during development is triggered and amplified to recruit immune cells during skin inflammation in eczema and psoriasis.
You were part of the research team to discover goblet and ciliated cells in the nose being key entry points for COVID-19. How does this move forward our understanding of the virus?
This was a great example of the value of the Human Cell Atlas. The data was already there to be immediately interrogated. Firstly looking at adult organs; we were able to predict which cells expressed the SARS-CoV2 entry receptors and thus likely to become infected. We identified several tissues that could be the seeding point of the virus in addition to the airway lining the lung. These include the lining of the nose and eye. These findings allowed researchers to focus on these tissues to understand how infection could start. We were also able to assess the possibility of maternal-fetal transmission of the virus through viral entry receptor expression in the placenta and also the tissues in the developing embryo/fetus and susceptibility to prenatal infection.
Looking forward, what do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your area?
Understanding the immune network within tissue space and across the human lifespan and ageing.
The BRC has many research themes, do you feel this has been useful for you in carrying out your research?
It has enabled me to collaborate across themes and enormously helpful in this aspect.