Professor Tao Dong's research interests include antigen-specific T cell responses in human virus infections and their contribution to the consequences of the disease. Hepatitis B virus has recently been added to the list of viruses which Tao and her group studies, which includes influenza and hepatitis C virus/HIV co-infection.
Because of its population size, China is a major contributor to infectious disease worldwide. Large patient cohorts, well established infrastructure, and government funding make research in China accessible. In collaborating with hospitals in China, the aim is to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the immunological mechanisms behind viral diseases.
Ultimately, medical research must translate into improved treatments for patients. At the Nuffield Department of Medicine, our researchers collaborate to develop better health care, improved quality of life, and enhanced preventative measures for all patients. Our findings in the laboratory are translated into changes in clinical practice, from bench to bedside.
Q: Why do we do research in China?
TD: As you know China is a big country with a huge population size, and so it is a major contributor for infectious disease burden worldwide. This includes the newly emerged virus such as SARS and AV influenza virus. This also means that China possesses large and well established patient cohorts which is important for scientists to get reliable and high quality data. Another important reason is the Chinese government is putting a lot of effort and funding to encourage international collaborations, especially with the top universities and institutes worldwide. China also has very well established hospital infrastructure and laboratory facilities, so it is a really good time to do the research in China.
Q: What is your general field of research?
TD: My research mainly focuses on antigen-specific T cells in human virus infection. Antigen-specific T cells are one of the most important immune cells (or white blood cells) in our body. They are responsible for eliminating the virus infected cells. So the aim of my research is to try to understand immune correlates between the virus infection and disease. For example in China we studied a patient cohort of HIV infected patients and we found that patients who shared a T cell related gene called HLA-B51 generally do much better than the patients who do not have this gene. And we also further worked out the potential reasons for that difference. As with many other researchers in the department, our goal is to work out the immunological mechanisms behind a disease and try to use the information in improving therapies and vaccines.
Q: Can you tell us about your work on flu infection?
TD: My flu research his mainly about finding out what kind of antigen-specific T cells are left in our body after acute influenza virus infection, and if those memory T cells are good enough to protect us from a new infection, especially of a virus that is different from previous infection such as pandemic flu. In order to do this we are collaborating with colleagues in Vietnam and China and are studying healthy volunteers as well as patients who have been infected with AV influenza virus as well as the pandemic H1N1 virus. We want to work out the difference in T cell responses in those people who do not become sick after infection, in comparison with those ones who develop very severe illness. We have found a very interesting group of cells in our body that could react to a broad range of viruses. This is really good news because those cells are like universal killers - they can eliminate different strains of virus including the pandemic.
Q: What will happen now, what are your new projects?
TD: I recently started research into hepatitis B virus infection, in particular in the context of liver cancer development. As you may know about one third of the world’s hepatitis B infected patients are in China and this is the main virus that has caused liver cancer; many people suffer from it. The hospital I have been collaborating with in the past 8 years is one of the largest infectious disease hospitals in China and they look after thousands of hepatitis B infected patients every year. The hospital started to develop an international programme during the last couple of years aiming to identify early diagnostic markers of liver cancer development, which is really needed. As one of the major international collaborators our aim is to find out the immunological changes in those patients before the cancer is established and to find out the contribution of those changes to the development of liver cancer.
Q: How does your research fit into translational medicine within the department?
TD: I am hoping to have more scientists in the department involved in my collaborative research in China in the future, especially those working with innate and cancer immunology. By doing this we are hoping to get a much more comprehensive understanding of the immunological mechanisms behind disease. In that way it will give us a better chance of finding ways to combat the virus. This is also the aim of my colleagues in China.