PhD awarded to Saskia Burm at Utrecht University

7 July 2016

BPRC - 1. PhD awarded to Saskia Burm at Utrecht University

On 8 June 2016 Saskia Burm successfully defended her thesis entitled ‘Inflammasome-mediated activation of microglia’.

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a chronic neurodegenerative disease with an unknown origin. In the brains of MS patients lesions (a sort of scars) are formed that cause symptoms such as fatigue and muscle failure. Although the exact cause of these lesions is unknown, it is clear that the immune system is involved in their development. 

The research results from PhD student Saskia Burm have revealed that a specific signaling molecule from the immuun system, IL-1β, potentially plays a role in the development of lesions in the brains of MS patients. IL-1β appears to be produced especially during the early stages of a developing lesion. Furthermore Burm observed differences in the production of IL-1β by microglia and macrophages. These are different types of immuun cells that have a similar function and are both present in MS-lesions. 

Baeed on this discovery, Burm decided to further investigate the production of IL-1β in microglia and macrophages in a culture dish. From these studies she concludes that there are important differences between microglia and macrophages in the way they react on activating signals. Probably this is a result of the different conditions these cells normally are exposed to in their different types of environment. Microglia are always present in the brains, while macrophages are derived from the blood and only enter the brains during disease. This results in tissue specific adaptations of the immune response in these cells.

All research described in the thesis was performed using patient material and with culture methods that were developed at the BPRC at the Unit Alternatives. Therefore, this research not only furthers our understanding of the role of microglia in the development of MS lesions, but also improves the development and use of methods that do not require living experimental animals. In addition, this work provides new leads for the development of therapeutic interventions for MS that aim to specifically block certain cell types in order to influence disease progression.