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The William Harvey Research Institute - Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry

Dr Elena Pontarini


Lecturer in Immunology

Centre: Experimental Medicine and Rheumatology

Twitter: @@TheRealARGOsLab


ORCID ID: 0000-0003-0439-0344

Elena Pontarini trained as a Biomedical Scientist at the University of Udine (Italy) before securing a fellowship from the Italian Society for Cancer Research to pursue an international PhD program in the field of Immunology and Autoimmune Diseases at the Humanitas Research Institute (Milan, Italy). During her PhD, she built a broad knowledge on rheumatic autoimmune conditions, with a specific focus in Sjogren’s syndrome, as she investigated the role of NK cells in an in vivo model for salivary gland immunopathology.

In 2016, she joined Prof. Bombardieri’s group at the Centre for Experimental Medicine and Rheumatology of the William Harvey Research Institute (WHRI) as a post-doctoral research fellow. She consolidated her research interest in Sjogren’s syndrome with the award of a Versus Arthritis Foundation Fellowship, with a research project examining the immunological changes occurring during the formation of ectopic lymphoid structures in the target organs of Sjogren’s (salivary glands) and rheumatoid arthritis (synovium).

In 2020, she was appointed Lecturer in immunology at the William Harvey Research Institute.

Her current research interest is focused on investigating the relevance of specific T cell subsets (T follicular helper cells and T peripheral helper cells) in the regulation of ectopic lymphoid structures forming in the target tissue of autoimmune diseases and their role in promoting B cell lymphomagenesis. Also, these cell subsets are being explored as therapeutic targets of immunomodulatory agents in collaboration with international partners within a large EU IMI-funded Consortium for Sjogren’s Syndrome (NECESSITY). 


  • Barts Charity - Seed Grant for research (2021)
  • EULAR- Scientific training grant for young fellows (2021)
  • Versus Arthritis- Foundation Fellowship (2018-2021)
  • European Federation of Immunological Societies (EFIS)- Travel Fellowship (2013)
  • European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)- Travel Fellowship (2013)
  • Italian Society of Cytometry, Cytometry in experimental thesis award (2012)


Group members

Farzana Chowdhury (PhD student), Aseel Atef S Ismail (PhD student).


The research focus is to understand which T cell populations can provide help to B-cell activation in the salivary glands of Sjogren’s Syndrome patients, recognised as one of the events supporting the formation of ectopic lymphoid structures. These structures are the niches of proliferating autoreactive B-cells favouring progression towards B-cell mucosa associated lymphoid tissue lymphoma. The identification of the specific T-cell population that can provide help to B-cells within Sjogren’s syndrome salivary gland will allow optimising the therapeutic targeting of the B cell-T helper cell interaction.  

In 2020, Elena published the discovery of T follicular helper (Tfh) cells and T peripheral helper (Tph) cells enriched in the blood and salivary glands of patients with Sjogren’s syndrome (Pontarini et al. ARD 2020). Tfh and Tph cells showed to be remarkably effective in promoting B cell activation, thus are likely to favour the progression towards lymphoma and may affect the clinical response to novel therapeutics targeting B/T cell interactions recently tested in clinical trials.  

Ongoing projects include the identification of the mechanisms by which Tph cells support B cell proliferation and clonal expansion and the validation of Tph cell expansion as a biomarker of disease activity and response/resistance to treatment targeting B-T co-stimulation in clinical trials. The research approach combines in vivo studies in salivary gland immunopathology animal model and the analysis of Sjogren’s syndrome patient cohorts with high dimensional flow-cytometry, histology and transcriptomic.

Elena teaches the BSc module Translational Pharmacology and Innovative Therapeutics (BMD375). 

Key Publications

  • Cellular and molecular diversity in Sjogren’s syndrome glands: Towards a better definition of disease subsets. Pontarini E, Coleby R, Bombardieri M.  Seminars in Immunology 2021 Dec.
  • Unique expansion of IL-21+ Tfh and Tph cells under control of ICOS identifies Sjögren's syndrome with ectopic germinal centres and MALT lymphoma. Pontarini E, Murray-Brown WJ, Croia C, Lucchesi D, Conway J, Rivellese F, Fossati-Jimack L, Astorri E, Prediletto E, Corsiero E, Romana Delvecchio F, Coleby R, Gelbhardt E, Bono A, Baldini C, Puxeddu I, Ruscitti P, Giacomelli R, Barone F, Fisher B, Bowman SJ, Colafrancesco S, Priori R, Sutcliffe N, Challacombe S, Carlesso G, Tappuni A, Pitzalis C, Bombardieri M.  Ann Rheum Dis. 2020 Dec;79(12):1588-1599. doi: 10.1136/annrheumdis-2020-217646. Epub 2020 Sep 22. PMID: 32963045 
  • Composite of relevant endpoints for Sjogren’s syndrome (CRESS): development and validation of a novel outcome measure. Arends S, de Wolff L, van Nimwegen J F, Verstappen G M P J, Vehof J, Bombardieri M, Bowman S J, Pontarini E, Baer A N, Nvs M, Gottenberg J-E, Felten R, Ray N, Vissink A, Kroese G M, Bootsma H. Lancet Rheumatol. 2021 May;3(8):e553-e562. doi: 10.1016/S2665-9913(21)00122-3 
  • Blocking T cell co-stimulation in primary Sjögren's syndrome: rationale, clinical efficacy and modulation of peripheral and salivary gland biomarkers. Pontarini E, Verstappen GM, Grigoriadou S, Kroese FGM, Bootsma H, Bombardieri M.  Clin Exp Rheumatol. 2020 Jul-Aug;38 Suppl 126(4):222-227. Epub 2020 Oct 23. PMID: 33095146 Review. 


  • Barts Charity - Seed Grant for research (2021)
  • EULAR - Scientific training grant for young fellows (2021)
  • Versus Arthritis - Foundation Fellowship (2018-2021)
  • European Federation of Immunological Societies (EFIS) - Travel Fellowship (2013)
  • European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) - Travel Fellowship (2013)


  • Dr Gwenny Verstappen- University of Groningen
  • Dr Silvia della Bella- University of Milan
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