The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

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

08 May 2019

The ABC of Childhood Immunity

To celebrate the Day of Immunology, the Australian and New Zealand Society for Immunology (ASI) invited the public to learn more about the immune system with a lecture on An ABC of Childhood Immunity: Allergy, Bugs and Cancer.

For those who weren’t able to make it - Doherty Institute NHMRC Early Career Research Fellow and Victorian Day of Immunology committee member Dr Fern Koay shares this re-cap.

You can also listen to the full lecture.

University of Melbourne Associate Professor Sammy Bedoui, a Laboratory Head here at the Doherty Institute sets the scene for the evening by giving the audience a brief, 101 on immunity.

Associate Professor Bedoui introduced the components of the immune system, and what happens when we don’t have one - with the pertinent case study of David Vetter, more well known as bubble boy. He highlighted the complex interplay between our immune system and bugs, where on one hand, we are constantly battling the pathogenic bugs from the ‘outside world’, but a healthy balance of microbes in us is vital for our health as well. When our immune system is not behaving like it should, we develop auto-immunity – and allergy is one of the most common outcomes.    

Associate Professor Sammy Bedoui
Associate Professor Sammy Bedoui

Associate Professor Bedoui’s brief background segued nicely into the introduction of the first speaker of the night, Professor Mimi Tang, Group Leader at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, who spoke on allergy. Professor Tang explained that over recent years the rate of childhood allergy has developed rapidly, and this rate cannot be accounted fully by genetic changes. Rather, lifestyle factors represent the most prominent cause, and being in an environment associated with a western lifestyle correlates with increased cases of allergy.

She explained that our microbiota composition dictates whether we go down a pathway of healthy tolerance to things that don’t harm us, or dysbiosis (immune dysregulation) and unwanted inflammation. Important factors that sway the outcome include microbial exposures and diet in the first years of life, which determine the composition of gut microbiota. Strikingly, breastfeeding and introducing solids (including the allergenic foods) in the first year of life can help achieve an optimal microbiome.

Professor Tang went on to share the important work her lab is doing. By leveraging her knowledge of the microbiota and how to induce tolerance of the immune system, they lead a peanut allergy trial, where co-administration of a probiotic and peanut oral immunotherapy resulted in peanut allergy remission in over 80 per cent of children in this trial. They are currently working on a new larger clinical trial and I think many of us will be very eager to hear the results.  

Professor Mimi Tang
Professor Mimi Tang

Next, Professor Ben Marsland from the Department of Immunology and Pathology at Monash University spoke on bugs. Professor Marsland explained that whilst we often refer to the gut when we talk about microbiome, there are also large sites hosting microbiota like our lungs and skin, which in turn affect airway and skin allergies. Professor Marsland painted the vast picture of microbiota (there are over 100 trillion bugs in each of us) and stressed that we are more microbes than human. He spoke about fecal transplants, one of the recent microbiome-based therapy breakthroughs. Fecal transplants remain poorly understood, but they are proving effective in treating infection that is traditionally difficult to treat such as Clostridium-induced colitis.

He also highlighted an intriguing study between bugs and childhood tolerance where in rural Europe, co-housing children with farm animals and early life consumption of raw cow's milk can significantly protect against allergies.

Professor Ben Marsland
Professor Ben Marsland

The last speaker of the night was Dr Misty Jenkins, a Laboratory Head at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute who addressed cancer. Dr Jenkins focused on childhood cancer and in particular, brain cancer which kills more children than any other disease in Australia. She explained that immunotherapy is a new strategy being used on these hard-to-treat and highly aggressive brain tumours. Using a lock and key mechanism, immune cell ‘keys’ can be engineered to recognise ‘lock’ patterns on tumour cells and in turn, kill them.  

Dr Jenkins explained that with this new frontier of research, donor biopsy samples were more important the ever.  Not only used as responder cells in experiments, they are also crucial for the discovery of novel locks to target.

Dr Misty Jenkins
Dr Misty Jenkins

Each year, the Victoria/Tasmania ASI Branch holds the public lecture to engage and communicate cutting edge research in immunology. It’s fantastic to see that each year it seems to garner more interest from informed members of the public. The questions from the floor gets more educated and relevant and it’s exciting to see the work we are doing as immunologists is proving to constantly resonate with the public.

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