Walking the glass bridge toward discovery

Scientists need to be open to change and opportunity, and to have faith, says Anne La Flamme.

Anne La Flamme, Professor in Immunology and Cell Biology
Anne La Flamme, Professor in Immunology and Cell Biology

When Victoria University of Wellington immunologist Professor Anne La Flamme says innovative scientific discoveries are usually the result of researchers embracing the unexpected, she could equally be talking about the course of her career.

Scientists need to be open to change and opportunity, says American-born Professor La Flamme, who is in Victoria’s School of Biological Sciences and heads the multiple sclerosis (MS) programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research on the University’s Kelburn campus.

“I always find it funny when someone says, ‘I’m going to do this, this, this.’ I go, ‘Okay. It’s a good plan.’”

Professor La Flamme’s plan as a teenager was to go into graphic design or another of the arts. When she did a Bachelor’s degree in life sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead, it was to make her a better candidate for volunteering in the Peace Corps in Africa. She had no intention of doing postgraduate study but almost four years in Cameroon got her hooked on wanting to help fight the tropical diseases she had encountered. So she enrolled in a PhD in immunoparasitology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Marriage to a New Zealander brought Professor La Flamme to Wellington. But what about the switch from tropical diseases to MS, a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system causing nerve degeneration that can lead to impaired vision and coordination and eventual paralysis?

While researching at Cornell University, Professor La Flamme became fascinated by how the immune system would modify itself to accommodate chronic parasites. She then wanted to know how it might deal with two things at once: a parasite and a non-infectious disease.

“So at Victoria I started a project to try to understand what would happen if you had a worm infection, because a lot of worms you can’t get rid of, so the immune system has to ‘accept’ the worm and to do that has to tone itself down.

“I was interested in what would happen with MS. Because MS we knew at that point is driven by the immune system. We [at Victoria] became the first group to show a live worm infection would reduce the incidence and severity of MS in an animal model.”

Professor La Flamme did not pursue the worm angle further—although scientists in other countries have— but did pursue research into MS.

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In a nutshell

My research matters because … There are still so many unknowns about how the immune system works to prevent infectious diseases but also how it can get things so horribly wrong and cause diseases like multiple sclerosis. My research seeks to understand how we can intervene and help the immune system make better choices, with the hope we will rebalance it and reduce the effects of immune-mediated diseases.

One of the inspirations for my research has been … My supervisor during my PhD, who taught me that everything is connected and to keep an open mind. Having that open mind can then allow the seeds of new ideas to grow and flourish.

The best thing about my job is … I never know what I will be doing from one day to the next. Each day is completely different.

My career highlight so far has been … To see the translation of a novel scientific idea into a potential new therapeutic trialled in a clinic. A highlight only achieved by collaboration with an outstanding group of researchers.

My advice to aspiring researchers is … Not to fear failure but to learn from it. In science, when you get unexpected results, you often feel like you have failed because you have not been able to prove your hypothesis. However, in real terms, that expected result can give you the most exciting new information and new ideas. Use it and learn from it.