Understanding the links between ageing and immune responses: a trainee's story
Wezi Sendama is one of our clinical trainees, whose work focusses on the effect of ageing on the inflammatory responses that protect us from infectious diseases and repair body tissues after injury. He is part-funded by the NIHR Newcastle BRC to carry out a PhD, and also carries out a clinical role with Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, where he works in respiratory medicine, looking after older adults with infections such as pneumonia.
Can you give us a summary of your research?
My research project, entitled ‘The effect of ageing on the resolution of inflammation‘, aims to understand why older people are more susceptible to respiratory infections like pneumonia and influenza than younger people, and why the infections appear to be more severe in older people. We think that it might have something to do with how, as we age, the cells of the immune system lose the ability to switch off their high alert status after clearing an infection. Part of what we’re trying to do is identify ways to get immune cells to return to a state of standby, so that their response is proportionate and controlled when they do encounter an infection.
What kind of changes would your research make possible for healthcare?
We think that a lot of diseases associated with ageing are associated with the failure to switch off an aggressive immune response, including things like coronary heart disease and some cancers. We think we might be able to repurpose some drugs that are already in use for other conditions to settle down overeager immune responses, so hopefully if we get some positive results we can move towards testing these old drugs for the new purpose.
What benefits has working in research brought to your clinical role?
I work in respiratory medicine, so my research informs my clinical practice quite strongly, as one of the most common reasons for admission to hospital (even before the coronavirus pandemic) is respiratory infection. My research aims to understand how the immune system behaves as patients recover from infection. More broadly, working in research has given me an appreciation of the evidence behind some of the tests and treatments we use for patients in hospital, and how best to select those to guide patients through their recovery in hospital.
Does your study involve working with patients and the public?
Part of our research included work with healthy older volunteers, and focus groups with members of the public were invaluable in designing the study to be as accommodating as possible, and to allow the volunteers to be as engaged in the study as possible. We were advised on things like how to advertise the study to get people interested, and how to design the study days to ensure they ran as smoothly as possible for the volunteers.
What have you gained from being an NIHR funded trainee?
The support from the training team has been fantastic, and has allowed me to participate in events like the training workshops in obtaining further research funding that I think will be invaluable as I progress in my career. I have also had the opportunity to present research to colleagues and members of the public at NIHR events, which has been excellent in helping to develop science communication skills.
What are your next steps, or what would you like to do in the future?
I’m working on putting together my PhD thesis for now, but I definitely hope to go on to apply for the NIHR Clinical Lecturer fellowship that would allow me to split my time between postdoctoral research and clinical work in respiratory medicine.