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Professor Fiona Powrie: oration

Read Professor Steve Ward's oration on Professor Fiona Powrie for the honorary degree of Doctor of Science in June 2015.


Chancellor, it is my pleasure to introduce Professor Fiona Powrie, FRS, an immunologist of the highest renown.

Fiona Powrie studied biochemistry at the University of Bath before undertaking a PhD in immunology in Don Mason’s Laboratory in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, Oxford. Following postdoctoral studies in the United States at the DNAX Research Institute, she returned to Oxford in 1996 to establish her own laboratory as a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow. In 2009 as the Sidney Truelove Professor of Gastroenterology she established the Translational Gastroenterology Unit and in October this year was appointed as Director of the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology at the University of Oxford.

Professor Powrie’s research has shed light on the complex cellular and molecular mechanisms that control the interaction between the body’s immune system and its abundant commensal bacteria. Our intestines contain more bacteria than human cells and normally these microbial residents promote human health. Professor Powrie took on the challenging task of studying immune cell populations in the intestine and how they respond to intestinal bacteria. Her work not only identified key immune cells that control intestinal immunity but also identified their mechanism of action. She has also shown that a breakdown in the normal dialogue between our immune cells and gut bacteria can lead to debilitating intestinal inflammation in inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and in some cases cancer.

Fiona’s first important contributions to the field came as a PhD student in Oxford. There she identified a population of T cells that control the immune response, effectively acting as policemen of the immune system. These early studies represented the foundations of the regulatory T cell field. During her post-doctoral studies, she developed models of intestinal inflammation that have shed light on the networks that control immune bacterial interactions in the gut. Her work identified the pathogenic role played by cytokines such as interferon-gamma and tumour necrosis factor-alpha in intestinal inflammation and the therapeutic potential of IL-10 and TGF-beta in the prevention of colitis by the regulatory T cell subset.

Upon returning to the University of Oxford in 1996, Professor Powrie’s group identified cellular mechanisms that promoted regulatory T cell activity in the intestine and established that the cytokine IL-23 is central in driving pathology in the intestine. Therapies targeting IL-23 for treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases are now being tested in the clinic.

Fiona Powrie has recently been appointed as Director of the Kennedy Institute in Oxford and hopes to translate fundamental basic science into new treatments for debilitating immune–mediated diseases such as IBD and rheumatoid arthritis. She has received several prestigious prizes including the Ita Askonas Prize for leading female immunologist from the European Federation of Immunological Societies, as well as the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine in 2012 . She serves on editorial boards of leading journals in the field including Immunity and Journal of Experimental Medicine. Her election in 2011 as Fellow of the Royal Society represents a phenomenal (and probably unique) achievement for a female Bath graduate.

In short, Fiona Powrie has performed seminal studies (published in top tier high impact journals), on the Treg lymphocyte population. Her work has established several new paradigms in the field of immune regulation and has significantly contributed to our appreciation that Tregs are key regulators of the immune system, offering novel therapeutic targeting opportunities for autoimmune diseases, cancer and organ transplantation. In addition to her scientific work, Fiona Powrie is the mother of Jessica, 13, and Cara, 19, both here today. She met her husband, Adrian, an architect, here at Bath and they are celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary this year.

Chancellor, I present to you Professor Fiona Powrie, who is eminently worthy to receive the degree of Doctor of Science, honoris causa.

Professor Steve Ward

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