Investigating the immune system to keep us healthier for longer

Dr Sian Henson is a Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London where she studies the importance of the immune system in aging.

Ageing is often thought of as inevitable, rather than treatable. My work focuses on how we can reverse some aspects of ageing and promote a healthier lifespan.

A central part of the ageing process is the way our immune system changes. In fact, I can’t think of any age-related disease that isn’t affected by our immune system.

When it works well, our immune system protects us from infectious diseases and cancer.  But even then, it’s a fine balance. Illnesses such as arthritis and heart disease are the result of our immune cells being in the wrong place.

As we age, the danger of cells moving to the wrong parts our body increases. For example, we find old immune cells in the fatty deposits in veins and arteries that cause heart attacks and strokes.

Many older people who appear healthy actually have low grade inflammation and this seems to trigger the damaging movement of our immune cells.

I’m interested in the causes of this inflammation and whether it can be prevented, either through the development of new drugs or finding new way to use existing drugs.

This is an exciting field to be in at the moment. With many new techniques to explore the immune system, there is always something different to try and something new to learn.

I was lucky to win one of the Academy of Medical Sciences’ first Springboard Awards. This allowed me to establish my own research group. As an academic, I’m well trained in experimentation but not how to run a lab and manage people, so I have taken every opportunity offered to me from training courses through to mentoring.

I also took part in the Academy’s SUSTAIN programme. This is a fantastic scheme aimed at newly independent female scientists to develop our leadership skills and help redress the lack of women in top academic positions.

I feel massively privileged that the Academy invested in my career, it’s made me a more confident and capable leader.


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