‘Metabolism is just one angle that hasn’t been explored yet. It’s a very new area’
Dr Graham Heieis
Turning problems into puzzles has always been Graham Heieis’ approach to science. “It can be just incredibly mentally stimulating, incredibly fun,” he says.
Some problems can also be hugely frustrating. “You need some mental resilience, for sure. But seeing it like a puzzle to be solved can be an attitude that maybe helps you get through some of those tough times.”
A Postdoctoral Researcher at Leiden University Medical Center, Graham’s current puzzle is understanding immune responses to helminth infections.
Infections caused by parasitic worms, known as helminths, are among the most common infections worldwide, affecting an estimated 1.5 billion people. Symptoms can range from general malaise to chronic malnutrition and impaired physical development.
Dr Graham Heieis
“Immune responses to helminth infection have remained an
enigma for a long time,” says Graham. “We currently don’t have
effective human vaccines. We can clear helminths in mice, but why
we can’t do this in humans is still an ongoing and very active area of
“Metabolism is just one angle that hasn’t been explored yet. It’s a very new area.
“I’m in a unique position here in Leiden where we can combine fundamental mouse studies with patient data to see whether this will be a viable strategy for future developments of vaccine strategies or small molecule treatments.”
Flow cytometry has emerged as a viable technique for studying the metabolic profiles of individual cells. Other research groups came up with the idea of using antibodies toward metabolic transporters or enzymes, so Graham and the team started looking into how to develop a flow cytometry panel to study immune metabolism in tissues.
Here, a new piece of the puzzle appeared.
“The whole idea of targeting metabolic proteins is strangely quite new to the flow cytometry world,” explains Graham. “So these kinds of studies are incredibly expensive.
“We just don’t have the same availability of readily conjugated antibodies and a variety of fluorophores as we do for most immune targets.
“We thought that the only way we’d be able to do what we wanted was to get bulk custom conjugations. But the cost can be extortionate, not to mention the logistical challenge.”
Dr Graham Heieis
Graham sent a request to abcam for price quotes on custom
conjugation. Instead, he got an email asking for a phone call to
discuss the project – and a possible solution.
“They were really keen on the whole idea, and they pointed us to the right tools: their Lightning-Link® kits – direct conjugation kits that are super easy to use and super robust.
“That was really what got us going on this project. If we hadn’t been aware that this technology was available, I don’t know what direction we would have gone. It kickstarted us in the right direction.
“Once we got the antibodies, found the ones that worked well, and found that these conjugation kits were working well for us, we just went full steam ahead.
“What’s great is that abcam has many recombinant antibodies validated by knockout, which gives a lot of confidence in the results.
“We keep seeing the same results across repeated experiments with the same antibodies, which gives us confidence that what we’re seeing is biologically real.”
Unlocking solutions to research challenges relies on partnerships like these, believes Graham. “Collaboration is hugely important to just help things move forward and not get stuck.
“Things are always easier when you get along, and abcam has always been nice and easy to talk to. We’ll continue to use these tools to support the research and keep generating more data using our panel.
“We’re hoping that the fundamental discoveries we make could one day serve as targets, or be considerations in either new drug development or vaccine adjuvants for helminth infections. Hopefully, it will be beneficial to the world at some point.”
Read about Graham's research in Nature Communications.