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MRC Senior Non-Clinical Research Fellow, Principal Investigator and Associate Professor in Cell Physiology

BSc DPhil Samira Lakhal-Littleton - Associate Professor of Cell Physiology and MRC Senior Non-Clinical Research FellowTell us a bit about your role

I lead a research programme that aims to gain understanding the role of tissue-driven iron control in chronic disease, and to apply that understanding for better management of iron status in patients. I arrived in the UK in 2000, having been awarded an international baccalaureate scholarship. Following a degree at University College London (UCL), I joined the University of Oxford in 2004 as a doctoral student in the Tumour Immunology lab of the late Professor Vincenzo Cerundolo. It was during that time, while working on an iron-dependent immuno-regulatory pathway, that I started to consider the wider role of iron, beyond that for which it is most known; i.e. a component of hemoglobin. To pursue that interest further, I joined the lab of Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe as a postdoctoral researcher. During that time, my published work described a number of molecular intersections between iron and oxygen sensing. Towards the end of that project, I obtained novel data hinting at a possible active mechanism of tissue-driven iron control. At the time, the consensus was that iron levels in tissues were simply a function of serum iron availability. Additionally, the animal models of iron homeostasis available at the time (typically global gene deletion or transgenics) were not suitable for the study of tissue-driven iron control. To overcome this limitation, I joined forces with my collaborator Professor Peter Robbins, and together we secured funding to generate conditional animal models. Following a period of maternity leave, I also secured a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Research Fellowship in 2013, which enabled me to gain independence and set up my own research group. During the Intermediate Fellowship, I used the newly-generated conditional animal models to describe the mechanisms and physiological importance of tissue-driven iron control in the cardiovascular system. I also obtained further funding which enabled my team to make similar discoveries in the fetal liver and the kidney. Challenging as it was (maternity leave in 2016, and a lengthy commute throughout), this stage of my career was also very productive, cementing my position as world leader in my chosen field. In 2020, I was awarded an MRC Senior Non-Clinical Research Fellowship. My aim now is to translate the new mechanistic understanding that we have gained thus far into better management of iron status in patients with chronic conditions.

Within the wider landscape of the Medical Sciences Division, my research is relevant and applicable to a wide range of disciplines. This is because iron status can be perturbed in virtually every chronic condition, and this perturbation is increasingly being recognised as a co-morbidity. Thus, better management of iron status could have far-researching benefits. To deliver those benefits, I am increasingly engaged with clinical colleagues across disciplines.

What is the most meaningful aspect of your work?

The most meaningful aspect of my work is that it has clear and wide-reaching applications, which if realised, could significantly improve outcomes in patients with chronic conditions.

Can you tell us about something you've done or contributed to that you're most proud of?

I am most proud of my discovery of tissue-driven iron control, which challenged a long-held consensus and produced a paradigm shift in our appreciation of the (patho)physiological role of iron.

What changes would you most like to see in the medical sciences in the next 100 years?

I would like to see greater representation of women and ethnic minorities in leadership roles, especially in traditionally male-dominated disciplines such as cardiology. I would also like to see an overhaul of existing work patterns and childcare provision, so that career progression can go hand-in-hand, rather than in competition, with a work/life balance.

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