My Lab Unlocked: Dr Antonia Sagona MRSB

Dr Antonia Sagona MRSB on how the Sagona lab studies and modifies phages to help diagnose and treat infections 

20th August 2021 

In my lab we work on genetically modified bacteriophages with properties that allow them to be used safely in a variety of applications. To understand the molecular mechanisms of phage therapy, for example how bacteriophages interact with their host bacteria and human cells, we have genetically modified phages to make them fluorescent, and we observe the interaction between phage, bacteria and human cells using microscopy and other methods.

We also genetically modify bacteriophages to be used as diagnostics for infection. For this, we have constructed bioluminescent bacteriophages and we collaborate with different disciplines, including clinicians, chemists, vets and engineers to develop and test our diagnostic tests.

Alongside this, we aim to understand the development of resistance and the evolution of the host bacteria that occurs during phage infection. For this, we collaborate with statisticians, physicists and bioinformaticians.

The big challenge when it comes to phage therapy, especially in UK, is the regulatory barriers that are involved, particularly when it comes to genetically modified bacteriophages. 

The frontiers in this area of research are understanding how exactly bacteriophages interact with human cells. I think this is a really interesting field that more and more labs in the world are interested in. We would like to investigate further the immune response that the body presents when phage therapy is administered, and the resistance to phages that results from phage therapy. Another interesting area is the study of the interplay between phages and antibiotics or other antibacterial agents. These are some very crucial areas that can help us further refine phage therapy.

I think that my lab is particularly interesting because of our combination of approaches. We are working with microbiology and phage biology methods, but in almost all the projects we have a human cell biology and confocal microscopy approach, due to my background on these two areas.

So, even though we do microbiology, we approach it more from the cellular and molecular mechanistic aspect. Along with that we also use synthetic biology methods to genetically modify bacteriophages. We are interested in both basic and applied research and we also have great interest in collaboration with industry. The combination of these characteristics is what makes us interesting (I hope)! We are generally very open to collaborations and are interested in collaborating more with immunologists, clinicians, chemists and industry. 

SagonaLab1Dr Sagona's lab combines multiple approaches to research
The lab was formed after I was awarded the BBSRC Future Leader Fellowship in 2016. I am so grateful to BBSRC for their support. The award of the Fellowship is one of my proudest achievements, alongside my first last-author paper published from Sagona lab in 2018. And just few weeks ago, my first PhD student successfully completed his PhD! I care very much about everyone in the lab and I am extremely proud of all of my people and their progress.
As with everyone, I have been affected by COVID. I am a mother of two sons that both go to primary school, and when the school was closed during the lockdown, it was very tricky. During the first lockdown we could not access the lab for a few months, and when we went back we could only host a few members of the lab each time. All this brought some delays, but as I also say to both my family and my lab members, we need to be grateful that we are healthy and that at least we have some progress in our work every day. I am generally very pleased with my lab members, they have tried their best in this crisis and we still manage to have results and evolve scientifically day by day. 
I am extremely grateful for my funding and would like to thank the BBSRC, the British Council Newton Fund Institutional Links, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. I also want to thank Midlands Integrative Biosciences Training Partnership (MIBTP) for funding my PhD students. I additionally want to thank my department, the School of Life Sciences, the University of Warwick and all my collaborators and colleagues, especially the ones who we share a lab with, for all of their support. Finally, I want to thank all of my amazing lab members for their hard work and perseverance in difficult times.
Find out more about the Sagona Lab here

Dr Antonia Sagona MRSB is an Associate Professor of molecular and cellular mechanisms of phage therapy, in the School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick.