Recently it has been recognised that components of our immune system – including NK cells – can protect us from cancer. ‘Immunotherapy’ has already shown success in some incurable cancers such as metastatic melanoma, and it is hoped that it could be used to improve the outcomes for many other types of cancer.
As lead author in two studies published in 2016 in the journals Nature Immunology and Immunity, Rebecca’s PhD studies have revealed how NK cell activity is controlled by a cell signalling hormone called interleukin-15.
The research focused on proteins within NK cells that influence how the cells respond to interleukin-15 said Rebecca.
“One of our studies identified a protein that boosts NK cell function in response to interleukin-15, while the other pinpointed a protein ‘brake’ that stifles NK cell activity,” she said.
“Amplifying NK cell function and taking off the brake could have the potential to improve these cells’ ability to attack cancer cells.
“I hope that my research into immunotherapy will one day have clinical applications.”
When she completes her PhD, Rebecca hopes to broaden her skills in translational cancer research. “During my PhD I have had the opportunity to attend international conferences, and to discuss my interest with my mentors at the Institute. These have helped me to plan my future career directions – in the long run I hope that I can learn new techniques, especially in the area of drug discovery.”
In addition to laboratory work, Rebecca has used her time at the Institute to discuss her research with school students, donors and other community members.
“Being given the opportunity to communicate my research in these forums has really made me think more about the broad applications of my research.”
Rebecca’s PhD studies were supported by a Leukaemia Foundation of Australia PhD scholarship and a scholarship top-up from Cancer Therapeutics Australia.