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24 Sep 2021

Meet the team: Dr Fern Koay

If you could start off by introducing yourself and what you do at the Doherty Institute.

I am Fern, a research fellow at the Godfrey Laboratory in the university’s Department Microbiology and Immunology. Since my PhD and now postdoctoral studies spanned our department’s relocation into this nice and shiny new building back in 2016, I have been referred to (and sometimes do feel like) Doherty Institute Ferniture.

How did you end up working in this field at the Doherty Institute?

Looking back, it’s a typical trajectory and I’m glad I’ve been able to go the distance so far: I came from Malaysia as an international student, did my honours year in the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, learned how to detect a neat population of immune cells called NKT cells, which led me to do a PhD in the Godfrey laboratory. At the time a collaborative group of labs in the department and Monash University uncovered a breakthrough finding on another neat, elusive population called MAIT cells, which allowed us to investigate how they develop within our immune system. I took on that timely project and have been in this whole new world of unconventional T cells since.

An opportunistic shout-out here that I’m happy to chat anytime to students about all aspects of trajectory or T cell research, and convince them to come study with us at the fundamental side. As Peter Doherty himself touted the importance of curiosity-driven research, “enlightened governments fund basic science!

You’ve just been awarded a 2022 Discovery Early Career Research Award from the Australian Research Council. Tell us about what that entails and the project you’ll be working on.

This DECRA funds 3 years of salary and support for a project where we ask the immune system my questions and get some answers on MAIT cell genesis. We know that MAIT cells are crucial in detecting microbes, various infections and abnormalities in the body, yet between us MAIT cell numbers are highly variable at steady state, ranging from having very few to up to 10% of all T cells. MAIT cell numbers are also particularly low in people at high risk of disease, including the very young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. Answers we don’t have include: Why this variability at steady state? How are they generated? Why do they possess different functional capacity in different tissues? What factors control their function and activity? Can we enhance or block these factors or genes that drive these processes?

What’s the ultimate goal with this research?

Armed with vital, fundamental discoveries into how MAIT cells are produced and regulated, we can harness MAIT cells to improve human health. Immunotherapy – using immune cells themselves to fight against disease is seeding ground-breaking therapies and is no passing craze, but it isn’t without its trials and tribulations. One such hurdle is how a source of T cells from a certain individual is incompatible to be donated to another. MAIT cells, however, may bypass this donor-restriction as our MAIT cells are more similar to each other than generic T cells studied and used in current immunotherapy trials. Our findings from this project will directly contribute knowledge and mechanisms on the path unwinding towards the ultimate therapeutic product: fine-tuned, engineered, universal MAIT cell therapies that can even be ‘off-the-shelf’.

We are just about to entering our fourth week of lockdown in Melbourne, any tips for getting through it?

I especially do not take for granted the ability to access the laboratory, so would jump at work or non-work-related activities that distract from doom scrolling and feeling a lot like cattle. I think I speak for many that this “snap” lockdown #6? or 9? or 19? caught us neither one prepared, personally I have to dig a little deeper to find an element of fun in the routine. The bare necessities for me have evolved to be Blackhearts & Sparrow, Providoor, and overseas family & friends on the other side of Zoom. If there is a top tip, it is to be kind to yourself.