Meet The Researcher

Professor Gabrielle Belz

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Let's get started! Tell us an interesting fact about yourself.
I initially trained as a veterinarian and spent a number of seasons delivering calves.
What inspired you to get involved in MS research?
I am fascinated by the nervous system and how disease is dealt with in a tissue that is so important but limited in its capacity to regenerate or repair itself. Our new models will reveal important new knowledge about gut immunity and how it contributes to MS. We hope that this knowledge will lead us to uncover novel new cell targets. This would be an exciting step forward in developing potential new treatments providing new options for improved disease management for people living with MS.
What do you think has been the most exciting development in MS research?
I think it is exciting to see how much progress has been made in understanding basic pathways of nerve cells and myelin-producing cells in the brain and how the immune system targets these cells. This knowledge really opens the door to treatments that can modify immune responses to treat disease such as MS. Such avenues of research underline how important it is to understand basic biology in developing new treatments, and the necessity of translating these discoveries to make a real impact for patients.
Tell us about your current research project...
MS is a complex disease. While MS symptoms involve the nervous system, it is now thought that what happens in tissues such as the gut play a significant role in the development and progression of MS. Currently we know very little about how signals from the gut surface and food activate immune cells, however this intestinal interaction has been strongly implicated in producing antibodies that protect against MS. In the past it has not been possible to tease this problem apart, but my research team has developed new tools that will allow us to probe these interactions, with generous funding from MS Research Australia. Our aim is to develop new strategies for targeting the gut immune surfaces or regulating the activity of antibody-producing cells in the gut to treat or prevent MS.
Why is your research important and how will it influence the understanding and treatment of MS?
As we learn more about MS, there is increasing evidence that our gastrointestinal system and ‘gut immunity’ play a critical role in the disease. In particular, antibodies generated in the gut can shield nervous system tissue from the neurodegeneration and tissue destruction that occurs in MS. We have developed a number of novel tools that will now allow us to probe the interface between the GI tract and the immune system – known as the ‘gut-immune axis’ – to better understand the interactions that generate protective antibodies. We hope this will lead us to identify potential drug targets that provide better opportunities to treat or prevent MS.
What do you enjoy most about working in the lab and what are some of the challenges you face?
The capacity to challenge yourself every day in the way you think about a big problem, or come up with solutions to smaller problems that lead you to new and unexpected ways to think about big problems is one of the things I most enjoy.
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Gabrielle Belz