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11 Oct 2018

Dr Daniel Pellicci awarded CSL Centenary Fellowship: Unconventional T cells join the fight against TB

University of Melbourne Dr Daniel Pellicci of the Doherty Institute has been awarded a $1.25 million, five year, CSL Centenary Fellowship to further research into how to develop better vaccines against diseases such as tuberculosis.

Dr Pellicci and Monash University's Dr Connie Wong will be funded through the $25 million CSL Centenary Fellowships program, which was established in 2016 to foster excellence in medical reearch by supporting mid-career Australian scientists to pursue world-class research.

Unconventional T cells are among our immune system’s first responders when infection strikes. They can kill infected cells and recruit other parts of the immune system to destroy the attackers. Dr Daniel Pellicci believes that these specialist white blood cells have huge untapped potential in the fight against tuberculosis (TB), cancer, allergies, autoimmune conditions and other diseases.

“The human immune system is amazing, but we’ve still got a lot to learn,” Daniel says. “My work is focussed on unconventional T cells, which are present in large quantities in humans and can rapidly mount a response to an invader, in minutes or hours, instead of the days or weeks required by some other parts of the immune system.”

Conventional T cells, work by recognising protein fragments from disease-causing pathogens but can trigger an unwanted immune response and cause the rejection of transplants or the development of autoimmune disease.

Unconventional T cells, by contrast, work by recognising fat or lipid molecules from pathogens, and this recognition process is identical from one person to another. They avoid the complications of their conventional counterparts. 

Daniel will use his $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship to investigate unconventional T cells in people suffering from tuberculosis. His team will investigate how these cells function in patients with latent or active TB, and in people who have been vaccinated against the disease.

The BCG vaccine—our current defence against TB—is effective at preventing infection in only about 20 per cent of children, and is even less effective in adults. Almost two billion people are infected with TB and it kills more than a million people each year. Daniel hopes his work will lead the way to an improved vaccine.

“Further, in the longer term I think we’ll be able to develop potent lipid molecules to stimulate unconventional T-cells to help fight multiple infectious diseases, plus other diseases that affect the immune system such as cancer, autoimmunity and allergies” he says.

University of Melbourne Dr Daniel Pellicci is a Senior Research Fellow at the Doherty Institute, but as of next month will take up a group leader position at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. His research is supported by project grants from the NHMRC and he was recently awarded the 2018 Commonwealth Health Minister’s Medal for Excellence in Health and Medical Research and an NHMRC Research Excellence Award.

Further reading:pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articles/tapping-into-the-power-of-unusual-white-blood-cells

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