Researcher Profile - Professor Ian Henderson


Professor Henderson, who is Irish born and bred, says he has always been fascinated by how decisions in history shape the world in which we live today.

“Growing up in Ireland, the microbe that stands out most in the school curriculum is the one that caused potato blight, which directly led to the Irish famine.

Three-quarters of the population depleted by a tiny organism

This event had a massive impact on Irish society, causing mass deaths and emigration, depleting three-quarters of the population, and it was all caused by a tiny organism – this really drove my interest in microbes.

“But microbes aren’t a historical footnote.

I think people forget, or don’t know, the impact that microbes continue to have in all sorts of diseases: communicable, the infections that we normally associate with microbes, but also non-communicable disease.

Microbes play a role in diabetes, cancer and heart attacks

Microbes play a role in diabetes, cancer, causing stroke and heart attacks – this is not really recognised by the public or even by some of our peers,” Professor Henderson said.

His research is focused on solving the problem of infection.

“All cells, including bacteria, have a surface, and the structure of this surface is crucial to how they interact with their environment.

“If we can understand the relationship between the surface of a bacterial cell and its environment, then we can disrupt those interactions and stop infection, and the negative consequences of coming into contact with some microorganisms.”


“Vampire” therapy to treat infection

His research has already led to an effective new treatment, nicknamed “vampire” therapy.

Dr Henderson found that some patients overproduce antibodies.

These proteins are designed to kill bacteria, but in these patients, the antibodies actually protect the bacterial cell from death, leading to severe infection.

Dr Henderson and his team found that some patients could be treated by draining a non-lethal amount of their blood – hence the nickname “vampire” therapy – filtering it to remove the antibodies, and returning it to the patient before applying the drug therapy.

It’s not a course of action for every patient or every infection, and right now it’s not available to enough clinicians for them to discover if their patients would benefit, but it is another tool in treating severe infections when all other treatments have failed.

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