Professor’s portrait: Åsa Andersson is trying to crack the code to autoimmune diseases

Every year a number of Swedes are diagnosed with autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, MS and rheumatic diseases. It is still unknown why the immune system attacks the body and creates such situations. Åsa Andersson and her research colleagues are working to find possible causes and how they can be treated.

It was during her studies to become a doctor in Umeå that Åsa Andersson first came into contact with research about immunology and type 1 diabetes. She was already an educated biomedical scientist and had experience working as a laboratory assistant for a few years, so that when she was asked to participate in immunology studies in the laboratory, she accepted immediately. This eventually led to Åsa Andersson dropping out of her studies to become a doctor, and instead started doing research within immunology.

“I felt that research appealed to me most”, Åsa Andersson says. “We had some classes on immunology during my Bachelor’s degree in Medicine, and it was a subject that interested me a lot. My dissertation was finished in 1993, and I got a Doctors’s degree in Molecular Biotechnology.”

Woman in white lab coat looking into the camera. She sits by a microscope. Photo.

Åsa Andersson has, in addition to her research, a large interest in women's rights.

It is research on a molecular level that Åsa Andersson devotes herself to – and a lot of the work happens in laboratories were proteins that affect activity in immune cells are studied.

“When I was doing research about type 1 diabetes in the 1990’s we discovered that baby mice that were treated with a certain type of antibodies were able to evade getting the disease. That discovery was probably a contribution to the knowledge that is now available about intravenous antibody therapy which is given in some autoimmune diseases.”

After a transfer to Lund University, Åsa Andersson started conducting research about other autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and rheumatoid arthritis. The genetic studies she spent her time doing lead to the knowledge that medicine that is used to treat cancer might also work to affect the cell signals that are behind autoimmune diseases.

“We were also able to identify a protein which affects how different genes are turned on and off, which in turn can impact the activity in some immune cells”, says Åsa Andersson. “This is important because it is only the immune cells that attack the tissue in the body that are hurt by autoimmune diseases. The research I started in Lund I then continued to develop at the University of Copenhagen where we got these results.”

Research in collaboration with Spenshult

She came to Lund after a two-year post-doc position in France, where she contributed to research about the immune deficiency disease X-linked SCID (Severe Combined Immunity Deficiency). Following that she worked at the University of Copenhagen, Department of Drug Design and Pharmacology, for several years, with assignments such as Section Manager and Board Member of the department’s board. Since autumn of 2020 she works as a Professor of Biomedicine at Halmstad University and is currently active within a research project which is a collaboration with, among others, R&D Spenshult and the rheumatologist at Lund University.

“What we study are what effects we can reach by physical activity and training to prevent inflammatory states which lead to rheumatic diseases”, says Åsa Andersson. “The project, which is financed by, among others, Reumatikerförbundet, is an attempt to translate the knowledge we have developed through previous studies into what effects we can see in people through physical activity. A trial group of young people with an inflammatory back disease have participated in a high intensity training class, and by taking blood samples before and after their work-out we have been able to measure the levels of pro- and anti-inflammatory proteins. As an extension we plan for a longer intervention study where a number of people will be training in similar ways during several months which gives us the possibility to measure the more long-term effects. The knowledge that is generated through the project is important not only to prevent rheumatic diseases but also because the training can influence the comorbidity which exists with cardiovascular diseases.”

Syringe dips into a cup in a chemistry lab

Included in the project are also Charlotte Olsson and Emma Haglund who also work at Halmstad University.

“You have to use what is around you”, says Åsa Andersson. “In Halmstad we don't have the opportunity to run tests on mice and that is the reason my research has changed its direction a bit.”

Engagement for women within academia

In addition to her research, Åsa Andersson also has a large interest in societal issues, especially when it comes to women's rights and the possibility of a career.

“I am getting really tired of seeing how slow the development of women’s rights is. Within academia for example, it is clear how often women must spend their time doing what we can refer to as academic chores. That is, in a department, there are several tasks that need to be done, but are not actually part of anyone’s official assignment. This includes things like social activities, coordinating seminars and so on. Things that contribute to the success of a department or organisation but are rarely seen. It is incredibly important that management is aware of all the work that is done without being seen as well as make sure women can make their voices heard and be able to share their thoughts in different contexts.”

In her role as a professor, she considers it important to be a role model for younger female colleagues.

“When it comes to the number of women it is not equal – and that is especially apparent within the field of Natural Sciences”, she says.

Involved in recruitment

In addition to her role as a professor, Åsa Andersson is the President of the recruitment committee and is also part of the Committee for Doctoral Education (FUU).

“These assignments are important and a lot of fun to work with. As a part of my role in the recruitment committee I contribute to the University being able to add the competence it needs going forward. And when it comes to the Committee for Doctoral Education, my goal is to bring attention to all the great PhD students we have, even if they are not enrolled at Halmstad University.”

Text: Matts Skagshöj
Translation: Linnéa Andersson
Photo: Matts Skagshöj and Dan Bergmark