Maps the organs' own immune system
The immune system of individual organs may be something entirely different from the immune system that circulates the blood. Niklas Björkström is conducting research into the immune system of, among other things, the liver and the uterus.
What are you researching?
"I do research on the immune system in different tissues, such as the uterus, liver and bile ducts. In the last decade, we have come to realize that many immune cells reside inside a tissue and that the immune system therefore varies greatly between different organs."
What do you want to know?
"We are studying both the immune system's healthy function as well as its role in illness such as chronic inflammation, autoimmune disorders, complications during pregnancy and cancer. One of the aims is to develop better diagnostics and discover targets for new treatments.
We recently published the first description of the immunological landscape in the bile ducts. Several pharmaceutical companies have shown an interest and we are hoping that our findings may contribute to inflammatory diseases in the bile ducts being treatable.
Regarding the immune system of the liver, my group has been conducting a lot of research into its role in hepatitis C. In the next few years, we will be participating in a European project on combined hepatitis B/D. We are also studying the immune system of the liver and fatty tissue to get an understanding of how low-grade inflammation occurs with obesity – something that in turn often leads to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and fatty liver.
Regarding the uterus, we want to know how its immune system changes during pregnancy and how this affects the risk of different complications. In a twin study, we have observed that the immune system in the uterus is greatly affected by environmental factors."
What is the next step?
"It's been necessary for us to separate the cells for analysis, one by one. Rapid technological advancement now enables us to study them in tissue in 3D. Then we can see how they relate to each other. We're just at that step."
Text: Anders Nilsson, in translation from Swedish
First published in the booklet ‘From Cell to Society 2023’
About Niklas Björkström
Professor in Clinical Microbiology focusing on Immunovirology at the Department of Medicine, Huddinge
Niklas Björkström was born in Kalmar in 1982. He earned his medical degree at Karolinska Institutet in 2010, defended his doctoral thesis at the same university in 2011 and obtained his license to practice medicine in 2013.
In 2011-2012, he completed his postdoc at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, USA. He became a docent in 2016.
As clinician he has been active at Karolinska University Hospital since 2010 – currently as a specialist physician in clinical microbiology.
Niklas Björkström was appointed Professor of Clinical Microbiology focusing on Immunovirology at Karolinska Institutet on 1 July 2023.