Dr. Francesca Di Cara

Dr. Francesca Di Cara

Dr. Francesca Di Cara

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity, Molly Appeal

First line of defense:
Dr. Francesca Di Cara explores how innate immunity may be altered to stop disease

Immunity researcher Dr. Francesca Di Cara is learning how the innate immune system -- which we are born with and which is our first line of defense against viruses, bacteria and cancer -- functions.

"The innate immune system is like a border control guard that maintains security in peaceful times, but in wartime attacks invaders with multiple weapons and recruits reinforcements with specialized training," explains Dr. Di Cara, an Italian-born scientist who joined Dalhousie Medical School from the University of Alberta. "Properly orchestrated innate immune responses are essential for human health. They not only protect us from infection, but also from cancer and chronic inflammatory diseases like Crohn's disease, arthritis and diabetes."

Macrophages -- big white blood cells that find, swallow and destroy invaders -- are important players in the innate immune response. Dr. Di Cara and her colleagues in Alberta discovered that structures inside macrophages known as peroxisomes play a crucial role in allowing the macrophage to consume invaders.

"the peroxisomes are essential to the innate immune response," she says. "They are like an on-off switch for the system."

Dr. Di Cara will continue her studies of peroxisomes and innate immune response regulation at Dalhousie, with the aid of the ImageStreamX Mark II, powerful cell-imaging and analysis equipment being purchased through Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's 2018-19 Fall Molly Appeal.

The ImageStreamX MarkII allows researchers to examine two million cells in a single sample, to see what is happening in extraordinary detail. Its ability to detect the activation and inactivation of key inflammatory pathways in a single cell -- and to precisely quantify the intensity of this activation -- allowed Dr. Di Cara to discover the vital role peroxisomes play as an on-off switch for innate immunity.

"I will use this new knowledge and the ImageStreamX Mark II instrument, to identify drugs that can control peroxisome activity," she says. "This can be used either to boost innate immunity to fight infections and cancer, or to dampen innate immune responses to treat chronic inflammatory disorders."

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