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Robin May

Wednesday 30 November 2016 - Understanding host immune manipulation by a lethal fungal pathogen.

My group are interested in host-pathogen interactions and, in particular, in understanding how some pathogens are able to subvert the innate immune system. Most of our work focuses on phagocytic cells, which some microorganisms are able to use as a ‘safe house’ within which to replicate. We try and understand how such pathogens can survive inside this hostile environment and the effect this intracellular reservoir has on disease progression.

The major focus of our group is on fungal infections, with a particular interest in cryptococcosis. This potentially fatal disease is caused by two pathogenic species of Cryptococci, Cryptococcus neoformans and C. gattii, which share a remarkable ability to evade the innate immune system and disseminate throughout the body. This is thought, in large part, to be the result of natural selection through environmental amoebae, since virulence traits that the fungus has evolved to survive within such predators typically work just as effectively within human phagocytes.

In this talk I will discuss our recent work in probing the cryptococcal/macrophage interaction. In particular, I will discuss what we have learned about the molecular basis of “vomocytosis”, a phenomenon that the pathogen uses to exit from phagocytic cells. In addition, we are also interested in the genetic changes that drive hypervirulent outbreaks of cryptococcosis in otherwise healthy individuals and I will attempt to “compare and contrast” these disease situations and speculate on what they tell us about the innate immune response to fungal pathogens more generally.


I am currently a Lister Fellow and Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Birmingham, UK. I also hold a Wolfson Research Merit Award from the Royal Society and am Deputy Director for the Institute of Microbiology & Infection.

My early training was in Plant Sciences (University of Oxford) followed by a PhD on mammalian cell biology with Prof. Laura Machesky (University College London & University of Birmingham). From 2001-2004 I was a Human Frontier Science Program fellow with Prof. Ronald Plasterk at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, working on RNA interference mechanisms. In 2005 I obtained a Research Council UK Fellowship to establish my own group at the University of Birmingham. In 2010 I was awarded a Lister Fellowship and in 2013 I was presented with the Colworth Medal of the Biochemical Society. I currently hold a Consolidator Award from the European Research Council and previously served as a co-director of the NIHR Surgical Reconstruction and Microbiology Research Centre, based at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham.

My research interests focus on host-pathogen interactions and, in particular in understanding how some pathogens are able to subvert the innate immune system. Much of our work is aimed at improving the treatment or prevention of opportunistic infections in patients with impaired immunity, such as HIV-positive individuals, patients in critical care, or people with long-term immune-compromising conditions.