-

Cell death

Cell death is an important process in the body as it promotes the removal of unwanted cells.

Failure of cells to die, or cells dying when they shouldn’t, can lead to or exacerbate many diseases.

Our research into how and why cells die is leading to new approaches to treating these conditions.

Cell death research at WEHI

Our cell death researchers are:

  • defining how cell death occurs, and how it is regulated
  • discovering how cell death impacts diseases including cancer and inflammatory conditions
  • developing treatments that modify the function of cell death proteins, as new treatments for disease

Why do cells die?

Cell death is an important process in the body. It removes cells in situations including:

  • when cells are not needed, such as during certain stages of development
  • to create a structure in the body, for example, the outer layer of the skin is made of dead cells
  • to remove excess cells, such as white blood cells after an infection has been cleared
  • if cells are damaged, such as by radiation or toxins
  • when cells are infected by viruses
Find out how you can support our research

Sign up to our quarterly newsletter Illuminate

Find out about recent discoveries, community supporters and more.

Illuminate Summer 2023
View the current issue

Cancer biology

Cancer occurs when cells develop changes that allow them to grow uncontrollably.

Our cancer biology researchers are working to understand what causes these changes, how this leads to cancer, and what factors determine the success of cancer treatments. This is leading to better ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

Cancer biology research at the institute

Our cancer researchers are discovering:

  • the changes that make a normal cell become cancerous
  • the genes and proteins required for the growth and progression of cancer
  • new ways to treat cancer that target molecules essential for the cancer cell’s growth and survival
  • how to select the best treatment for a person with cancer

How does cancer develop?

The growth of cells and tissues in the body is under tight control. This allows the body’s systems to work together. Sometimes it is important for certain cells or tissues to grow more than others. Examples of this are during the growth of a child, and the regrowth of tissue after an injury. There are many genes and proteins in cells that regulate cell growth in response to appropriate signals.

Cancer is initiated by a cell dividing uncontrollably. This is caused by changes to the genetic material (DNA) of the cell that alter the normal growth control genes and proteins. Cancer development is usually triggered after a single cell has acquired several changes that work together to drive cancer formation. Cancer cells typically contain higher-than-normal amounts of proteins that promote cancer growth. They also lack certain proteins that, in normal cells, limit growth.

Usually cancer-causing changes occur by chance (spontaneously). In some cases, cancer-causing genetic alterations are inherited from parents. Cancer-causing viruses can also introduce cancer-causing changes to cells. For example, the human papilloma virus (HPV) changes the DNA of cells in a woman’s cervix, which can lead to cervical cancer.

You can read more about the genes that are linked to cancer in our cancer page.

Find out how you can support our research

Sign up to our quarterly newsletter Illuminate

Find out about recent discoveries, community supporters and more.

Illuminate Summer 2023
View the current issue

Personalised medicine

Personalised medicine customises healthcare to an individual.

Our researchers are discovering new strategies that use genomic and proteomic information to match a person with the best treatment for their individual disease.

Our personalised medicine research

Our personalised medicine researchers aim to identify the most appropriate treatments for individual patients by studying complex biological systems.

Aspects of their research include:

  • genomics, to link changes in DNA sequences with responses to treatment.
  • proteomics, to determine treatment responsiveness influences changes in proteins
  • systems biology, that incorporates many types of information about samples to understand how they may respond to disease.
  • bioinformatics, to develop powerful methods to analysis complex data.

The Ian Potter Centre for Genomics and Personalised Medicine is a partnership between the WEHI and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute. The centre is Australia’s first research centre devoted to matching disease treatments to a person’s genetic makeup.

What is personalised medicine?

Every human is unique, and we often differ in how we develop diseases and respond to treatments.

Personalised medicine aims to tailor treatments to achieve the best outcome for individual patients, rather than treating patients with a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

Find out how you can support our research

Sign up to our quarterly newsletter Illuminate

Find out about recent discoveries, community supporters and more.

Illuminate Summer 2023
View the current issue

Immunotherapy

Immunotherapy is an innovative treatment that modulates the body’s immune system to fight disease.

Our researchers are using their knowledge of the immune system to develop immunotherapies for cancer and immune disorders.

Immunotherapy research at the Institute

Our researchers are:

  • Discovering how immune cells respond to, and kill, tumour cells with the goal of finding new ways to manipulate this process to target cancer.
  • Studying whether immune cells can be harnessed to treat brain cancer without triggering significant side effects.
  • Investigating whether immune checkpoint inhibitors could improve treatment of people with certain types of lung, stomach and breast cancer.
  • Examining natural killer cell biology to find ways to use these cells therapeutically, for example to treat melanoma.
  • Developing immunotherapies to treat coeliac disease and type 1 diabetes.

What is immunotherapy?

Your immune system plays a vital role in protecting you from harmful organisms and substances. It can fight off bacteria and viruses that invade your body, and also destroy cancer cells that arise within your body.

Unfortunately, however, cancer cells often find ways to stop your immune system from eliminating them.

Immunotherapy can help boost the body’s immune system, enabling it to successfully fight off cancer cells. This type of immunotherapy – known as cancer immunotherapy – has been hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in cancer treatment in a generation.

In other cases, an overactive immune system can cause disease. Some people have an immune system that inappropriately responds to harmless substances such as gluten in food. This triggers immune illnesses such as coeliac disease.

In these cases, immunotherapy aims to specifically dampen or suppress these abnormal immune responses to treat the underlying cause of disease and reduce symptoms.

Find out how you can support our research

Sign up to our quarterly newsletter Illuminate

Find out about recent discoveries, community supporters and more.

Illuminate Summer 2023
View the current issue