Expert’s Corner: Javier Irazoqui researches communication between the gut and the nervous system

By Megan Bard

UMass Medical School Communications

April 04, 2017

Javier Elbio Irazoqui, PhD, associate professor of microbiology & physiological systems, is interested in fundamental mechanism of innate immunity and inflammation.

In his lab at UMass Medical School, Dr. Irazoqui’s research focuses on dissecting mechanisms of host-microbe interactions in health and disease, with special emphasis on neural control of epithelial integrity in the gut and how those cells communicate with the central nervous system.

“In the intestines, we’re colonized by billions of bacteria that are constantly communicating with us through our cells through a mechanism that is not well known. But, what we do know is that communication is really important for many central nervous system diseases and disorders, such as autism, irritable bowel disease and multiple sclerosis,” Irazoqui said.

The Irazoqui lab takes a multilayered approach in its research of how the nervous system can control the expression of genes in the intestinal epithelium and how those genes communicate with the microbiota and define the inflammatory status or how the host can defend against intestinal infection.

Using in vitro tissue culture models of human and mouse cells and in vivo models of genetically modified mice and nematodes, researchers are able to address whether discoveries they’ve made through studies of the nematode C. elegans worm model can be translated into human inflammation and innate immunity.

In the long term, Irazoqui hopes to apply the knowledge his lab has discovered through identifying new pathways and genetic interactions that control inflammation in innate immunity to define viable therapeutic targets.

“We’d like to be able to correct what goes wrong in situations of runaway inflammation, for example in IBD or autoimmune diseases, and be able to help patients that have intestinal infections and are challenged by pathogens. Their immune systems are not able to cope with that challenge,” he said.

Irazoqui did postdoctoral research in host-pathogen interactions with Fred Ausubel in the Department of Molecular Biology of the Massachusetts General Hospital and the Department of Genetics of Harvard Medical School. There, Irazoqui led his independent laboratory first in the Department of Pediatrics and then in the Center for the Study of Inflammatory Bowel Disease, both at MGH. He came to UMMS last year.

Irazoqui’s research is supported by the National Institutes of Health and by the National Science Foundation.