A new research group in statistical genomics and computational immunology is being led by Yang Luo, who has joined the Kennedy from Harvard Medical School.
Yang joins the Institute as a KTRR senior research fellow in data science through the Kennedy's Career Development Programme. "My interest lies in a particular region in the human genome called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). This region harbours the human leukocyte antigen or HLA genes," Yang said. "HLA molecules enable our immune system to discriminate between self- and non-self proteins. For example, if a virus enters our system, it is the HLA genes first to alert other cells to attack foreign invasion and clear the infection."
Since the first description of an association between the HLA protein and Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1967, genetic variations within the MHC region have been linked to numerous immune-mediated traits, such as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the hepatitis C virus, rheumatoid arthritis, type I diabetes, and cancer.
"The molecular structure of the HLA protein has been studied extensively. For example, it is used to match potential donors to bone marrow transplant patients," explained Yang. "The gap lies between what we know genetically and the molecular mechanisms. My group is going to focus on closing this gap and try to pinpoint how certain genetic variations within HLA genes are mediating the disease risk. Is it mediated through shaping the T cell repertoire during thymic selection? Or is it through regulating gene expression? If so, what are the cellular contexts for those HLA variants?"
The goal of her team is a better understanding of how genetics contributes to the understanding of these diseases and help with earlier detection and preventative treatment.
Yang has jointly recruited a post-doc (Esther Ng) with the director of the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics, Professor John Todd. She is joined by Ruth Nanjala, the first DPhil to join the Kennedy Institute through the Africa Oxford Initiative (AfOx) studentship, and Jennie Astley, an MRC funded DPhil student jointly supervised by Professor Luke Jostins-Dean.
"In addition to the support from the fellowship, what attracted me to the institute is that Kennedy is very translational and has historically made significant contributions in transforming basic research into drug discoveries," Yang said. "For statisticians like myself, access to the large, detailed phenotyped cohorts within Kennedy and Oxford is invaluable. The position of the Kennedy within the University and the potential for collaborations across departments, such as the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics and the Big Data Institute, makes the Kennedy a very exciting place to do research."
Yang has a mathematical background. After studying a PhD in statistical modelling, her first postdoc position was at the Wellcome Sanger Institute where she was part of a group that identified novel gene variations in immune-mediated diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease and tuberculosis.
Moving to Harvard Medical School, Yang's research extended to multi-ancestry genetic studies to develop statistical models for understanding genetic predispositions to complex immune-mediated traits in global populations.
"We're excited to have Yang join the Kennedy Institute as part of our Career Development Programme (CDP)" said Mike Dustin, Professor of Molecular Immunology. "We are committed to building an outstanding research culture at the institute and one way we can help early-stage scientists onto the research ladder is through our CDP, which was established soon after the Kennedy Institute joined Oxford University."
Irina Udalova, Assistant Director in Data Science at the Kennedy Institute said: "We are delighted to welcome Yang to the Kennedy Institute as a data scientist. The Kennedy has invested substantially in data science and computational biology capabilities and there is great excitement in this field. The huge quantities of data that are available enhance our potential to understand the root causes of many complex immune-mediated diseases and their treatment and we look forward to understanding more as Yang's research develops."