Associate Professor Nigel Peter Birch

B. Sc (Massey University), M. Sc (First Class Honours) University of Auckland, PhD (University of Auckland)

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Associate Professor

Research | Current

Research Interests

  • Cell communication and migration in the nervous and immune systems.
  • Cell biology and biochemistry of synaptic plasticity, neuronal cell death and neurodegenerative disease.
  • Health promoting and disease-preventive functions of plant phytochemicals.
  • Target molecules: serpins, neuroproteases, membrane transporters, molecules associated with cell survival and cell death

New Research positions: start date ~mid 2016

The Royal Society Of New Zealand has recently awarded a Marsden Grant to Associate Professor Nigel Birch (PI) and Professor Rod Dunbar (AI) to investigate chemokine-mediated control of human immune cell migration.  We are looking for a PhD student with a background in cell biology and/or immunology to join the research team.  The successful candidate will need an outstanding academic record to secure University of Auckland Doctoral Scholarship for stipend support.  For more information please contact Nigel Birch.

Current Research Areas

Neuroserpin and its role in neuronal function
Neuroserpin is a member of the serine protease inhibitor or serpin superfamily that is synthesized and secreted from neurons. It is widely expressed in the developing nervous system but restricted to areas retaining synaptic plasticity in adults, supporting roles in both early neuronal growth and alteration of neuronal networks. Neuroserpin transgenic mice show altered behaviour and changes in neuroserpin expression may contribute to the pathogenesis of schizophrenia. We are interested in understanding the roles of neuroserpin in neurons, and are investigating the biology of neuroserpin at the cellular level using a range of biochemical and molecular approaches. (Figure: Fluorescent micrograph of cultured hippocampal neurons. Courtesy T.W. Lee)


Defining roles for a neuronal serpin in the human immune system
Effective immune responses are dependent on cell migration. Key immune cells called T cells search out foreign organisms by constantly migrating around the body, stopping to meet other immune cells in immune tissues such as lymph nodes. T cell motility ensures they can make multiple contacts with antigen presenting cells (APCs) that “present” them with fragments of foreign organisms, called “antigens”. Once T cells recognise an antigen, their migratory behaviour changes dramatically. They stop crawling and remain in contact with the APC for several hours, forming a broad membrane contact zone called the immunological synapse, named to reflect functional homology with the neuronal synapse. This contact is crucial in initiating the activation and proliferation of the rare T cells that can recognize a particular microbial antigen. In collaboration with Professor Rod Dunbar and Dr Anna Brooks we are investigating the role of neuroserpin in regulating the movement and interactions of human T cells to enable an immune response. (Figure: Sorting of human white blood cells using a fluorescence activated cell sorter. Courtesy N. Lorenz & A Brooks)


Health promoting and disease-preventive functions of plant phytochemicals
Dr. Arjan Sheepens is the lead researcher in the Mood Food programme at Plant and Food Research, Auckland, investigating foods and food components that improve mental well-being. We are working with Dr Scheepens’ group to study the molecular mechanisms that underpin the health-promoting and disease-preventive effects of plant phytochemicals. (Figure: Multiplex western blot analysis of protein expression. Courtesy E.J. Loef)

Areas of expertise

serpins / neuroproteases / neuropetide biosynthesis / cell biology and biochemistry of synaptic plasticity and neurodegenerative disease/cell biology and biochemistry of immune cell migration and communication/health promoting and disease-preventive functions of plant phytochemicals

Selected publications and creative works (Research Outputs)

  • Chen, Y.-R., Ugiliweneza, B., Burton, E., Woo, S. Y., Boakye, M., & Skirboll, S. (2017). The effect of postoperative infection on survival in patients with glioblastoma. Journal of Neurosurgery, 127 (4), 807-811. 10.3171/2016.8.JNS16836
  • Lee, T. W., Tsang, V. W., Loef, E. J., & Birch, N. P. (2017). Physiological and pathological functions of neuroserpin: Regulation of cellular responses through multiple mechanisms. Seminars in Cell and Developmental Biology, 62, 152-159. 10.1016/j.semcdb.2016.09.007
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Evert Jan Loef, Tet Woo Lee
  • Cheng, Y., Loh, Y. P., & Birch, N. P. (2017). Neuroserpin attenuates H₂O₂-induced oxidative stress in hippocampal neurons via AKT and BCL-2 signaling pathways. Journal of Molecular Neuroscience, 61 (1), 123-131. 10.1007/s12031-016-0807-7
  • Ren, H., Birch, N. P., & Suresh, V. (2016). Barrier function and ion transport in an oleic acid-induced model of lung injury. Proceedings of the AuPS, 47, 92P-92P. Adelaide, Australia: Australian Physiological Society (AuPS). Related URL.
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Vinod Suresh
  • Lorenz, N., Loef, E. J., Kelch, I. D., Verdon, D. J., Black, M. M., Middleditch, M. J., ... Dunbar, P. R. (2016). Plasmin and regulators of plasmin activity control the migratory capacity and adhesion of human T cells and dendritic cells by regulating cleavage of the chemokine CCL21. Immunology and Cell Biology, 94 (10), 955-963. 10.1038/icb.2016.56
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Natalie Lorenz, Evert Jan Loef, Rod Dunbar, Scott Graham, Anna Brooks, Martin Middleditch, Inken Kelch, Daniel Verdon
  • Ren, H., Birch, N. P., & Suresh, V. (2016). An optimised human cell culture model for alveolar epithelial transport. PLoS ONE, 11 (10)10.1371/journal.pone.0165225
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Vinod Suresh
  • Birch, N. P., Lorenz, N., Loef, E. J., Kelch, I. D., Verdon, D. J., Black, M. M., ... Brooks, A. E. S. (2016). Plasmin and regulators of plasmin activity modulate the presentation and function of the homeostatic chemokine CCL21. Paper presented at ICI 2016: International Congress of Immunology, Melbourne, Australia. 21 August - 26 August 2016. European Journal of Immunology: Abstracts of ICI 2016.
    Other University of Auckland co-authors: Anna Brooks, Natalie Lorenz, Evert Jan Loef, Scott Graham, Inken Kelch, Martin Middleditch, Rod Dunbar
  • Cawley, N. X., Rathod, T., Young, S., Lou, H., Birch, N., & Peng Loh, Y. (2016). Carboxypeptidase E and secretogranin III coordinately facilitate efficient sorting of proopiomelanocortin to the regulated secretory pathway in AtT20 cells. Molecular Endocrinology, 30 (1), 37-47. 10.1210/me.2015-1166


Contact details

Alternative contact

Building: Thomas Building (110)

Room number: 228M

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