Affiliation(s): University of Toronto
Dr. Shannon Dunn, University of Toronto
Dr. Dunn is a scientist at the Keenan Research Centre at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. She also holds an appointment of Associate Professor in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto and is an adjunct scientist at Women’s College Hospital. She was awarded a doctoral degree from the University of Western Ontario for her work exploring a role for the calcineurin-NFAT pathway in regulating skeletal muscle growth. She then conducted post-doctoral training in the field of neuroimmunology at Stanford University under the supervision of Dr. Lawrence Steinman. During her post-doctoral fellowship and early career she made important contributions to understanding how statin drugs impact the immune system to ameliorate experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis (EAE), an animal model of MS. Simvastatin has gone forward with positive results in clinical trials in progressive MS. She also made important advances in understanding how a molecule called Peroxisome Proliferator-Activated Receptor-delta functions in the immune system to resolve neuroinflammation during cellular immunity and EAE and in understanding the role of PPAR-alpha in regulating sex differences in T cell responses in EAE.
She currently leads a research program that focuses on how risk factors for MS impact the immune system to modulate autoimmunity in an animal model of MS (EAE mice) and through studies of human blood cells. Her trainees are investigating the role of female sex, obesity, smoking, and head injury on the development of EAE and are interrogating sex differences in the immune response in MS.
What is the focus of your research? How did you become interested in MS research?
The current focus of my research is to better understand how MS gets started. This is a very difficult question in a human since evidence indicates that autoimmunity in MS initiates more than a decade prior to the start of clinical disease. I have taken the approach of better understanding how specific MS risk factors alter the immune system using lab models of MS. If we understand this biology, it will provide important insights into how the disease gets started, but also may reveal new ways of preventing MS. I am interested in MS research because my mother was affected by MS and because I wanted to make a difference.
What inspires you to continue advancing research in this field?
I see that we have made so many advances in MS therapy and that scientists have altered the natural history of disease. I want to contribute in some way to solving the bigger puzzle of disease prevention.
How do you hope to change the lives of people living with MS through your research?
I hope that my work will improve our understanding of the autoimmune processes in MS and lead to new ways of preventing disease.
What do you enjoy most about your research? What are some of the challenges you face?
I certainly enjoy seeing new data and looking at biology that no one has yet seen or appreciated. As researchers, we are scientific detectives who are trying to understand nature that was set in place thousands to millions of years before. We always are discovering new things, which is exciting and counterbalances the challenges associated in the job. The major challenge I face is ensuring the donor dollars entrusted to me turn into good data. We try to design the best experiments, but there are always things that we can’t control or don’t anticipate that creep in. Financial security for the lab is always an ongoing stress, but thanks to this Discovery grant from the MS Society of Canada, this stress is lessened.
How important is the support from the MS Society of Canada in your research?
Very Important. Funding is extremely competitive these days and immunological work that our lab does is very expensive. The MS Society of Canada has supported me on almost every step of my academic journey and I probably wouldn’t be working as a scientist in MS without this support. I was supported by an MS Society of Canada postdoctoral fellowship for 2 years that helped provide me with time to get experiments completed and ready for publications that helped me become a principal investigator. The MS Society of Canada funded my first operating grant as a principal investigator, essentially launching my independent career and I was also awarded a Don Paty award, which helped fund my salary as an early PI, providing me with job security. My second MS Society of Canada operating grant helped get strong preliminary data that led to continued funding from CIHR, which now funds my research examining sex differences in MS. Many of my trainees have received studentships and fellowships from the MS Society, which has been an important contribution to my current success. Many of these trainees have gone on in positions in industry that focus on drug development, autoimmunity, and immunity in general.