Immune cells perform different functions in different parts of the body. Some fight off infections in the skin. Others protect the lungs from pollutants. But how do these cells learn to do the right job in the right place? And why does that process sometimes go wrong?

BRI’s Peter Morawksi, PhD, intends to find out. After five years in BRI’s Campbell Lab, Dr. Morawski will launch his own lab to expand BRI’s research in skin immunology.

By studying the basic biology of immune cells in the skin, the Morawski Lab will examine the role T cells play in inflammatory skin diseases like scleroderma and psoriasis. These diseases happen when the immune system goes into overdrive, causing inflammation that leads to everything from skin rashes and itching to scarring in connective tissue.

“The skin is our major barrier to the outside world. It protects us from UV radiation, it fights off infection, it starts wound healing when you get a cut,” Dr. Morawski says. “We want to learn more about why immune system processes in the skin go wrong and how we can stop that from happening.”

T Cell Job Training

Studying how T cells learn to do the “right” job is one of the Morawski Lab’s key areas of research. For example, how do they learn that they’re supposed to attack bacteria but leave healthy skin cells alone? How do non-immune skin cells help train T cells? And how do T cells in the skin change the behavior of non-immune skin cells?

“Answering these questions gives us a better understanding of the cells’ underlying biology, and that helps us understand what goes wrong in disease,” Dr. Morawski says.

His team is using donated skin samples from Virginia Mason Medical Center patients who have had panniculectomy surgeries (tummy tucks) to study these questions.

“Typically, BRI uses small blood samples or tiny biopsies that give us about 100,000 cells to study,” Dr. Morawski says. “But with these donated samples, we have millions of cells to study. A lot of our research wouldn’t be possible without this volume of tissue.”

A Jell-O Mold For Research

Dr. Morawski is working with University of Salzburg’s Iris Gratz, PhD, to create a unique model to learn more about the genes and cells involved in scleroderma.

“These 3D models of skin samples look like Jell-O molds. They will allow us to see individual cells, where they are in the tissue and how they interact,” Dr. Morawski says. “By editing the genes in these models, we can get a sense of how genetics might impact disease.”

Dr. Morawski also has his eye on other state-of-the-art tools like spatial transcriptomics. This groundbreaking molecular profiling method allows scientists to see every cell in the tissue, the entire genome of each cell and which cells are interacting with each other. “BRI has unique access to human samples and some of the most advanced tools, which creates opportunities to do some really innovative work,” Dr. Morawski says.

“I’m really looking forward to using these resources to dive even deeper into this research.”

Fighting Diseases

September 14, 2022

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