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A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital

15 Dec 2015

New hope for prevention of infectious diseases

Researchers from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute), a joint venture of the University of Melbourne and Royal Melbourne Hospital in Melbourne, Australia have uncovered the molecular ‘machinery’ required to create novel immune cells that could provide protection against important infectious diseases.

The study, led by Dr Laura Mackay and Professor Francis Carbone, and published in Immunity today (1), identified that specialised immune cells – tissue-resident memory T cells – that live in tissues such as the skin and lung rather than in the blood, are key to protecting against infection because they are in the right place at the right time, ready to fight infection at the site of viral entry.

Through a series of laboratory experiments, Laura and her team determined how these cells are mobilised into action, which could have the potential to transform how researchers design vaccines.

Laura said that until now, vaccine trials have focused on boosting the immune system’s antibodies or disease-fighting T cells in the blood.

“Our research has shown that these tissue-resident memory T cells have a very important role in viral infections (2),” she said.

“In our most recent study, we found that the signals required to generate these T cells were completely different to those required to generate immune cells in the blood. By learning to control these cells we can harness their protective function to prevent infectious diseases.”

Laura and her team will now test ways to convert T cells in the blood to tissue-resident memory T cells, and evaluate their therapeutic potential against a wide range of pathogens.

Director of the Doherty Institute, Professor Sharon Lewin, said the notion of T cells in the tissue being totally different to T cells in blood completely changes the way we think about the immune response to viruses.

“For example, to block transmission of HIV, we want the immune system ready to go in the vaginal and rectal mucosa. Tissue-resident T cells are likely to be a key factor in generating a local and effective response” she said.

“This is an exciting piece of research with the potential to transform the way we think about the immune system and in designing future vaccine studies.”

Professor Fabienne Mackay, Head of the School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Melbourne said, “Congratulations to Laura Mackay and Frank Carbone for this outstanding work deciphering new secrets of T cells within our tissues, which play a very unique role during viral infection ” 

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