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Current Postgraduate Research Students

Leonie Unterholzner supervises 10 postgraduate research students. If these students have produced research profiles, these are listed below:

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Dr Leonie Unterholzner

Senior Lecturer in Molecular Immunology

Furness Building



Research overview

My research group is interested in how cells can detect foreign DNA, for example when skin cells have been infected by a virus. This is part of the innate immune response, which acts within the first few hours of infection, with the aim to alert more specialised immune cells, and to eliminate the virus before it can spread to other parts of the body. We are investigating how a cell can distinguish viral DNA from its own DNA genome, and how it signals to alert neighbouring cells. We also study how cells can detect their own DNA as danger signal, when the DNA has been damaged by UV light or chemotherapy.

Our work investigates molecular mechanisms that underlie the immune response during infection, autoimmunity and cancer.  

PhD supervision

My laboratory works on the innate immune system and host-pathogen interactions. We are particularly interested in the molecular mechanisms of how cells detect DNA in the cytosol, and how nuclear DNA damage and replication stress act as danger signal for the immune system. Some examples of potential Masters by Research projects are: 1. How do poxviruses evade detection by the innate immune system? 2. How is intracellular DNA detected as "stranger" and "danger" signal? 3. Has our innate immune system evolved from ancient anti-viral defences in Archaea? (joint project with Nick Robinson) 4. Does oncogene-induced replication stress drive inflammation in cancer? 5. How are DNA sensing factors activated in autoinflammatory conditions?

Current Research

Current projects in my laboratory focus on the molecular mechanisms of intracellular DNA recognition. Projects include:

  • The function of the DNA sensors cGAS and IFI16 in detecting DNA in the cytosol
  • The cell-intrinsic innate immune response to DNA damage
  • The role of DNA sensing in cancer
  • Immune evasion strategies employed by DNA viruses and Leishmania parasites 

Current Teaching

I currently teach on the 3rd year module BIOL321 Clinical Immunology and the masters level module BIOL434 Emerging Therapeutics in Immunology. I also supervise undergraduate and postgraduate students during their research projects. I am Director of Studies for postgraduate research students in the Division of Biomedical and Life Sciences, and am co-ordinating a skills and research career development program for PhD students and postdocs.

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