Sophie Ugolini: making the connection between neurons, pain and immunity

Sophie Ugolini, Inserm Research Director at the Immunology Research Center – Marseille-Luminy (CIML – Inserm Unit 1104), is conducting innovative work on immune response regulation by the nervous system. This project has been funded by European Research Council (ERC Consolidator Grant).

Sophie Ugolini and Immunology, it’s for life! The researcher has decided to devote her career to describing the mechanisms that help to control the immune system. For many years she has been studying Natural Killer (NK) cells, lymphocytes involved in the innate immune system that eliminate infectious or tumour cells. Having discovered the pathways involved in their regulation, the researcher participated in the development of cancer treatments that are currently undergoing clinical trials. Advances that earned her an Inserm Research Prize in 2012. 

How does the nervous system influence the immune response? 

Sophie Ugolini © Inserm, E. Begouen

Sophie Ugolini is now devoting herself to studying the interactions between the nervous system and the immune response. A new original theme for which she applied for ERC funding in 2014: “When I was younger, I hovered between studying immunology or neurobiology as I was passionate about both areas. Today, I am bringing them together through collaborations with neurobiologist colleagues. In biology, we are well aware that the borders between the disciplines are purely theoretical, and that understanding the living organism requires observation of the body as a whole. The fundamental question that I ask today is the following: how does the nervous system influence the immune response?”

When the body’s integrity is damaged, for example if the skin is injured, neurons known as nociceptors are activated and send the sensation of pain to the brain. At the same time, cells of the immune system are recruited to the site of the injury, to repair the tissue and eliminate any pathogens. What is the impact of nerve signals on this local immune response? How do these pathways interact? What are the molecules involved? 

That is the project that the researcher has been developing for several years. “It is a new research area, which therefore opens up possibilities for major and unexpected discoveries,” explains the researcher.

Thanks to some promising early results, her application was selected by the ERC juries. She actually has mice lacking these nociceptive neurons in their skin, which do not feel pain when their skin is injured or infected. “The immune responses of these animals are compromised compared with those observed in control rodents that feel pain, establishing a direct link between neurons and immunity,” she explains. “We now need to understand the innermost mechanisms that underlie these neuroimmune interactions.

The possibility of moving to a little-explored area of research

With this European funding of €2 million for five years, Sophie Ugolini can serenely and completely devote herself to her work. “This funding is incredibly important. It gives me not only a certain visibility and international recognition, but most of all has allowed me to surround myself with a team of talented and motivated researchers, who are ready to experience this adventure with me. It is thanks to this funding that I have been able to launch myself into such an important and innovative project. It allows me to take risks and move to a little-explored area of research.

It should not be long before the first results are published: “We have already identified candidate molecules involved in this link between neurons, pain and immunity that could open up new therapeutic possibilities in certain inflammatory diseases,” says the contented researcher. 

Find out more about Sophie Ugolini and her work
Sophie Ugolini works in the Natural Killer Cells and Innate Immunity team at the Immunology Research Center – Marseille-Luminy (CIML – Inserm/CNRS/Aix-Marseille University Unit 1104). She received an Inserm Research Prize in 2012.

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