22 Aug 2018

Spotlight on our NHMRC Fellowship winners: Professor Ben Marsland

Professor Ben Marsland
Deparment of Immnuology 
and Pathology
by Anne Crawford

Professor Ben Marsland. Senior Research Fellow B (SFRB) for: a project exploring how the microbiome can be used to prevent and treat respiratory diseases.  

Until recently the healthy human lung was, remarkably, thought to be ‘sterile’. In 2010, it was discovered that our airways, like our gut, have a microbiome, a suite of microorganisms including bacteria, fungi and viruses performing a vast array of functions. Since then the field has exploded, with hundreds of papers exploring the topic.

How the lung microbiome forms in the first place is a mystery Professor Ben Marsland is trying to solve.

“The lung microbiome is still a very new area,” Professor Marsland said. “One of the things that’s never been addressed until now is how it forms and what impact it has on the developing immune system of newborns,” he said. “And actually, does it even start to happen in utero, before the baby is born?”

NHMRC funding will allow Professor Marsland to extend work he and his colleagues have been conducting into both the lung microbiome and gut microbiome. “It’s great to be getting support for this research in Australia, it’s a very competitive process, and I recognise it’s a privilege to be able to keep pursing this line of work.”

In 2014 he revealed how the lung microbiome develops in mice; now he is investigating this in humans.

“How the microbiome develops is fundamental to how our immune system develops, and consequently, our susceptibility to different diseases,” Professor Marsland said.

A strand of this research is looking at the “window of opportunity”, the particular period of time in early life that determines whether the mouse – and perhaps human babies – will go on to develop asthma later in life. Other research is illuminating the “cross-talk” between the microbiome and the immune system in the lungs.

Meanwhile, Professor Marsland is working with six hospitals in the UK on work funded by the Wellcome Trust, tracking a birth cohort of 1000 babies over five years to see which babies develop asthma, trying to tease out the factors determining which children develop the disease and which don’t, and why.

He is also collaborating with lung transplant physicians at the Alfred Hospital and researchers in Switzerland to investigate what is happening in the microbiome in the lungs of patients receiving transplants. “We’re assessing how the immune cells function and how viruses, bacteria and fungi change over time in the microbiome of the patient. We’re trying to understand whether the microbiome could be a prognostic marker to help us understand whether these patients’ transplants are doing well or perhaps they’re starting to be rejected.”

The NHMRC fellowship will also contribute to a second major theme of Professor Marsland’s work examining the gut microbiome. He is currently working with the Dutch Lung Foundation, ‘A World without Asthma Consortium’, on studies investigating how diet can change the microbiome in the gut and how that influences the development of asthma.

Part of this research builds on studies led by Professor Marsland that showed that different types of dietary fibre protected against asthma and influenza infections in the lungs of mice; the researchers are now looking for the mechanisms behind this and how it could be translated to humans.

Professor Marsland has headed a laboratory in the Department of Immunology and Pathology since February 2018. Originally from New Zealand, he completed his PhD in Immunology at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research and Otago University, then spent 14 years in Switzerland split between the ETH Z├╝rich and University of Lausanne. His research has featured on radio and television, including a BBC Horizons documentary on asthma, and in leading international journals. He won the prestigious Swiss research awards (the ETH Latsis prize and the Leenaard’s Prize).

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