Dr Paul Giacomin – AITHM Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Dr Paul Giacomin is one of AITHM’s leading Mucosal Immunologists and has been a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Biodiscovery and Molecular Development of Therapeutics in Cairns for four years. He began his tertiary education at the University of Adelaide with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science, and continued with his Honours and PhD training at the University of Adelaide.
After early post-doctoral research in the United States at the University of Pennsylvania, he returned to Australia to investigate the molecular and cellular mechanisms by which immune responses to parasitic helminths (worms) are initiated and regulated.
Dr Giacomin’s passion for immunology was ignited by the potential to tackle one of the biggest problems in biology – studying an organism or cell to determine how it functions, and how that information can be translated to improve human health. “Most of my scientific training has been basic research using animal models of disease, which is essential for forming the basis for future discoveries. However, I was equally passionate about studying the human immune system in order to develop novel treatments for inflammatory diseases, or develop new cures for parasitic disease,” Dr Giacomin said.
Dr Giacomin’s recent research investigates key immune cells and cytokines involved in immunity to intestinal parasitic worms, as well as exploring the potential beneficial effects that worm infection may have in alleviating inflammation associated with autoimmune diseases. A recent opportunity to be involved in a clinical trial assessing the immune response of humans to hookworms, as well as determining whether the worm could have a beneficial impact on a common inflammatory disease, has now shaped Dr Giacomin’s future research direction and became one of his key achievements.
“The trial involved only a small number of people, but it was important as a proof of principle that these worms, or the molecules they produce, may hold the key for suppressing coeliac disease symptoms. The results even surprised us; we found an almost complete suppression of gluten induced inflammatory responses in these people who had previously been on a strict gluten free diet, where they could then eat pasta with no ill effects,” Dr Giacomin explained.
Dr Giacomin is now beginning to focus on a much larger trial that will begin in 2016. Dr Giacomin and his team, including research students, aims to analyse the hookworm and gluten-induced immunological responses in greater detail, while also using in vitro assays to test whether any specific proteins secreted by the worms can suppress the gluten responses. The idea is that such a protein could one day be developed in the lab as a pill-based medication, and infecting people with live hookworms will not be necessary.
In five to 10 years’ time, Dr Giacomin hopes that AITHM will be running additional trials in coeliac disease as well as other inflammatory disorders, and his current group of PhD students are already thinking and planning for that far ahead.
“I’ve been a researcher in Professor Alex Loukas’ lab for the past four years, and have had a lot of freedom and encouragement from him to be involved in a diverse range of projects, such as animal models of disease, basic research into immunology, infectious diseases, and parasitology. Now, as a relatively senior member of the group, I’m enjoying being involved with a number of students’ exciting research projects,” Dr Giacomin said.
Dr Giacomin explained that the AITHM is ideally placed to encourage students and researchers to capitalise on the biodiversity of the tropical regions of Australia to look for proteins and molecules that could have novel immunoregulatory properties. As a mucosal immunologist, he is excited to be overseeing new projects and hopes to start growing his own group to work on future discoveries.
“I’m passionate about this project, passionate to see what we can discover and what that means for the quality of life for people living with coeliac disease and other immunological disorders. There is so much we don’t know about our intestinal immune system. Our bodies face an immense challenge every day in preventing our immune systems from attacking our own tissues or what we eat, but simultaneously having the ability to fight invading pathogens. That’s where I see AITHM, and the group I work with discovering in the future,” Dr Giacomin said.