McGill team wins grant to study ‘trained immunity’ with Japanese researchers

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Joint research program between the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research focuses on advancing technologies in epigenomics, deepening McGill’s relationship with Japan’s RIKEN institute. 

By Junji Nishihata

In recent years, the concept of ‘trained immunity’ has emerged as a new area of interest. This refers to the body’s inherent ability to reprogram the innate immune cells to respond differently to subsequent infections. Where does this recall come from? And what are the epigenetic mechanisms that enable it to persist? Indeed, the pursuit of answering the questions raised by trained immunity have been hampered by a lack of useable tools to facilitate research.

The Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences’ Professor David Langlais will be pursuing this study thanks to a grant from a new collaboration between the Canadian and Japanese research communities. The novel program is a partnership of the Japan Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Aimed at early-career researchers such as Langlais, the collaborative research to be supported by the AMED and CIHR builds upon a far-reaching cooperation between McGill and RIKEN that uses genomics and immunology to address major questions in biomedical research.

Japan’s prestigious RIKEN Institute is composed of over 3,000 scientists working in seven centres across Japan. Its past body of achievements includes two Nobel prize winners. For the current project, Langlais will be interfacing with the teams of Drs Jay Shin and Aki Minoda at RIKEN’s Center for Integrative Medical Sciences, based in Yokohama.

In 2018, the McGill-RIKEN partnership received support from Quebec’s Fonds de Recherche (FRQ). A new 5-year McGill-RIKEN agreement, signed on July 15, 2020, covers the assignment of joint laboratory space for the collaboration at McGill and the RIKEN Yokohama site, exchanges of scientists and trainees, and continuation of a joint symposium that has been held annually since 2017. In July, the RIKEN International Affairs Section also made a 5-year award of 10 million JPY annually towards these joint activities. The collaboration with RIKEN is part of McGill’s wider engagement with Japanese academic institutions, which includes the joint McGill-University of Kyoto PhD degree in genomic medicine established in 2018, which is also supported by the FRQ and is the first of its kind for the two Universities.

Professor Mark Lathrop, Director of McGill Genome Centre, said: “We are very pleased that the AMED and CIHR will support this joint research project between McGill and RIKEN. The way the teams will be working closely together to bring their complementary expertise at the leading-edge of genomics and immunology to bear on very important biomedical questions is exemplary of the research that the McGill-RIKEN collaboration is intended to promote.”

The $300,000 grant (awarded by CIHR over three years; AMED will grant 30 million JPY over the same time frame to the Japanese researchers) will enable three separate aspects to the study of trained immunity. First, it will permit the study of the phenomenon at the biological level, to better understand how chromatin conformation inherits the ability to recall pathogens from the past and eliminate newcomers. But to do so at the level of the individual cell will require the development of a new suite of tools – which is the second aim of the project, and one of the main remits of the RIKEN side of the collaboration.

Specifically, the project seeks to develop bulk and single-cell Single-Molecule chromatin capture techniques that will reveal how the individual cells can be ‘reprogrammed’ for the purposes resisting infections.

The third objective of the project will be to develop the necessary algorithms to interpret the resultant bioinformatics, a process that is sure to involve large amounts of data, in other words, Big Data. This portion of the study will be undertaken by Professor Hamed Najafabadi, in McGill’s Department of Human Genetics. A recipient of a Sloan Fellowship in 2018, Najafabadi brings considerable expertise in bioinformatics to the project.

“Our teams are already fully integrated on this project, as well as on other collaborative research efforts,” said Langlais referring to his collaborators in Japan. “We will have exchanges with student internes attending our counterpart institutions, and we are expecting this work will result in a number of published papers,” he explained, clearly enthused by the prospect. “The expectation is that this will result in truly novel technologies that will advance the field of epigenomics overall.”

In 2018, Langlais was among the McGill researchers figured prominently in Québec Sciencemagazine’s annual list of the top 10 scientific discoveries in Quebec. This joint research program announcement comes amidst deepening ties between Japan and Canada, as evidenced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcements in 2019, as well as parallel moves in Quebec.




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