© Lydia Lynch

22-09-2017

There is no easy cure for obesity nowadays, as scientists have an incomplete understanding of what controls body weight. With ERC funding, Dr Lydia Lynch has returned to Europe from the US to work on an entirely new field in the treatment of obesity.

In the last 15 years, it has emerged that chronic inflammation, particularly in adipose tissue, interferes with insulin signaling, causing diabetes and obesity. Harnessing the immune system to regulate adipose inflammation and body weight, therefore, represents a new research pathway. The immune system in adipose tissue is largely under-appreciated; yet fat tissue covers the whole body and contains lymphocytes with unique functions compared to their counterparts elsewhere in the body.

Dr Lydia Lynch is one of the researchers who have recently identified the critical role of invariant natural killer T cells (iNKT) –the lipid-sensing arm of the immune system - that are natural anti-inflammatory agents found in fat tissue (iNKT are usually pro-inflammatory - just in adipose tissue they are not - as Dr Lynch discovered). The link between obesity and compromised immunity in humans was the focus of Dr Lynch’s post-doctoral work in Ireland. In 2009, the young biologist received a prestigious L’Oreal-UNESCO Women in Science award, followed by a Marie Curie international fellowship, to carry out  investigations at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where she established major collaborations and ultimately set up her own lab.

In 2015 Dr Lynch applied to the ERC Starting Grant competition with the goal of pursuing her research back in Europe and she succeeded. Thanks to EUR 1.8 million in funding, she now leads a multidisciplinary research team of five and she is now establishing a state-of-the-art in vivo immunometabolic facility in Ireland, the first of its kind in the country. For her, this project represents “a unique synergy between my scientific goals and the strategic plan of Trinity College Dublin which aims to become a European leader in immunometabolism”.

Dr Lynch, who in the meantime has been appointed Associate Professor, wants to find out why the iNKT cells die when humans become obese, and how to prevent them from dying or to activate them again. According to her, the ability to boost adipose iNKT cells could be the key to reversing adipose inflammation, providing a new therapeutic path for treating obesity and type 2 diabetes. Her research has major impacts in the fields of immunology, metabolism and endocrinology.

In November 2016, Dr Lynch has been listed as one of the 20 women making essential contributions to science around the world by Silicon Republic, the Irish leading news portal for science and technology.

She was also part of the 2016 ‘Women on Walls’ campaign in Ireland, by the Royal Irish Academy in partnership with Accenture, that seeks to make women leaders visible through a series of commissioned portraits to inspire future generations. She was also featured as one of the biggest Irish talents under 40 by the Independent, Ireland’s largest-selling daily newspaper.