Before coming over to Australia I worked in a translational research lab at the University of Pennsylvania that specializes in tumor antigen discovery and the development of novel vaccine strategies to fight cancer. This work got me interested in basic immunology inasmuch as I came to realize that cancer immunotherapeutics, something I found enthrallingly interesting, can only be as successful as our fundamental knowledge about the human immune system is extensive. The development of preventative and therapeutic cancer vaccines has thus far been largely a lesson in scientific perseverance, but holds enormous promise for the future. After all, one needs to look no further than a shortlist of the greatest achievements in modern medicine to see the power of vaccination in combating illness.
I took a quarter-long immunology class at Haverford last semester during which I was surprised by how superficial our knowledge of the immune system really is. Experimental immunology arguably began in 1890 when Emil von Behring and Shibasaburo Kitasato demonstrated the existence and function of antibodies, leading to scientists’ first conceptualization of the immune response. Yet more than a century later, for instance, the mere existence of cell types now understood to be integral to immune responses was being heatedly debated. The full significance of these cells that ‘turn off’ immune responses, known as regulatory T cells, is still unclear. Understanding how immune responses are prevented and suppressed is as important as understanding how they are initiated and perpetuated, especially within the context of autoimmune diseases such as type I diabetes and, of particular interest for me, cancer vaccine design.
At WEHI we’re trying to understand how regulatory T cells are induced by dendritic cells, another immune system cell type, in order to piece together how immunosuppression is initiated and sustained. This understanding is a small part of the body of knowledge that will ultimately be translated into novel treatment of disease. Over the next few weeks I’ll be posting about how this research is going.