Chantal Hargreaves is a postdoctoral scientist funded through the Oxford BRC’s Gastroenterology and Mucosal Immunity Theme. Working in the lab of Clinical Immunologist Dr Smita Patel at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Chantal is conducting research into how genetic variations impact on the immune system.
“Smita’s patients are born with genetic ‘errors’ in their DNA, which cause them to have immunological diseases that make them susceptible to infections and various other conditions. I work in the lab and we have access to very precious patient material, such as blood samples, and essentially we try to figure out what’s gone wrong with their immune system; can we identify the gene that’s causing their condition?” says Chantal, who came to Oxford in 2016.
The patients are quite varied: sometimes there is only one patient in the whole region who has a particular genetic defect; other times there might be a larger cohort of patients with the same diagnosis, but they have different genetic causes.
Born in the West Midlands, Chantal, now 30, moved to Dublin as a child. During her schooling there, she developed a love of sciences, especially human biology, and “had great plans to do stem cell research”.
She returned to the West Midlands to study medical sciences at the University of Birmingham, where an immunology module sparked a real interest in her. “I couldn’t have articulated then why, but I’ve realised it’s because the immune system gets to all parts of the body; it’s in your blood, it protects us from infection; it’s involved in protecting us from cancer. I find that really interesting, and the idea that the immune system can ‘learn’ from past infections so it can fight them in the future.”
She went on to do a PhD at King’s College London where she learned about thyroid biology and lab skills, before moving to Southampton for her first post-doctoral position, researching how the genetics of the immune system, manipulated through antibody therapy, can affect people’s responses to cancer.
After that first post-doc, Chantal needed to make important career decisions; what did she want to focus on? “I really liked working in academia, the ethos of publicly-funded science for patients, and I’d always been interested in immuno-deficiencies.” In Oxford, there’s a cohort of patients with common variable immune deficiency (CVID) disorder, some of whom get infections that can be treated with antibiotics. “But there’s a sub-set who get the gastrointestinal manifestations, these autoimmune conditions, and another sub-set are at an increased risk of cancer. It seemed to be an area that ticked every area that I was interested in: immunology, genetics, autoimmunity and cancer. It really brought it all together. It was really exciting.”
“Cancer has a lot of funding, rightly. Every time you think you’ve come up with the idea, someone has already thought of it; they’re five years ahead. But the funding for Primary Immunodeficiency hasn’t matched it, so I think there’s a lot more we could do.
Often, the team have only one patient with a particular autoimmune condition. “It’s hard to go to the big funders with just one patient, whereas with the BRC you can get smaller one-off grants that can give you enough pilot data to explore it a bit further.
“I can apply for smaller grants that make a big difference”Chantal Hargreaves
“The NIHR allows smaller project grants, especially for the likes of me; I’m not eligible to apply for big grants as a post-doc, I can apply for smaller grants within the BRC and that makes a big difference, not only for getting a boost of income for a project, but also for your CV as it helps to then go for the next bigger thing:”
With BRC funding, Chantal has been able to present a paper on a study on two patients in Oxford at a conference in Italy, which has enabled her to work with an Italian collaborator who has a similar patient, bolstering the study
Where does she see her career going? “I would like to have my own lab, I’d really like to pursue that, particularly with the Primary Immunodeficiency patients, applying what I’ve done before – the cancer and autoimmunity knowledge.
“I’ve been focusing on getting small pots of money, like I have with the BRC, getting some more papers published, and then apply for a more independent fellowship. That’s the hope.”
Chantal says she is “old in post-doc years”; some of her PhD contemporaries have their own research groups at other universities. “It took me slightly longer to find my passion, but I’ve found my niche now.”