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A vision of the future for immune health

This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘24
Key Researchers
Photo of Phil Hodgkin in front of a window
Division Head
Professor Phil Hodgkin (left) and Professor Jo Douglass (right) both wearing white lab coats and safety goggles

WEHI’S Professor Phil Hodgkin and the Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor Jo Douglass are co-leading the new Snow Centre for Immune Health, a transformational immune health research centre.

Jo:

I’m a specialist physician and I work in allergic and respiratory disease, which is endlessly fascinating and such an underappreciated area of medicine. I am also the Director of Research at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Diseases of the immune system are so common. Overall, one-in-five people experience an allergic disease and one-in-ten have an autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis or SLE (lupus). These diseases can cost people their health and in some cases can even kill.

I’ve been collaborating with the WEHI team for over a decade. I used to think WEHI was the most daunting place, where only absolutely brilliant, fabulous scientists work. The fact that they wanted to work with
me was terrifying and exciting by equal measure!

When I’m treating patients, I often don’t have a good way of determining which drug will be most effective. While patients often present with similar symptoms, I know they can respond differently to treatments, so it can be a journey until we get them onto the right medication.

Lives are precious and drugs are expensive. If we knew up front how to target the right pathway within each patient, it would greatly change their outcomes. I want a future where choosing the right treatment isn’t a ‘clinician’s guess’.

I think that’s one of the great potentials of the Snow Centre for Immune Health. In the early days, I hope we can better use currently available treatments. Going forward, I think we’ll discover pathways that we’ve never been able to target before, pursue these with research, and develop new therapeutics.

My primary role at the centre is to establish and build Snow Research Clinics, where patients will be able to join immune system trials, while being treated with the best and latest medicine. Data from the clinics will form the basis of research by Phil’s team, and their results will come directly back to the clinic to inform better outcomes for patients.

A moment I’m anticipating with delight is when we have a team of scientists and doctors poring over a particular patient’s data, which has been analysed by Phil’s team at the centre, and we work together to create the best therapeutic approach for that person.

One of the grand challenges of the health sector is delivering a high standard of care while trying ambitiously to improve and do things better.

The Snow Centre for Immune Health will allow us to really change the way we handle common immunological conditions, and I know it will make a huge difference to many patients, and to the clinicians that care for them.

It truly has the capacity to transform what we do.
 

Phil:

When I was an undergraduate student studying science, I went to a lecture about clonal selection theory, the fundamental theory that explains how the immune system responds to threats, discovered by former WEHI director Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet.

It was the coolest thing I’d heard at uni. A biological theory as powerful as the great theories of physics.

I felt it was inspiring, but also that it had a long way to go. For example, it told us why our bodies made an immune response to a virus, but it couldn’t explain why some people would respond to a peanut as if it was a parasitic worm.

I decided overnight I wanted to work on that theory, and I have been ever since.

We’re now heading towards ‘predictive immunology’ – the idea that we can predict who will get a particular disease, why they’re susceptible, and what would be an appropriate therapy.

To make this work, we’re building the teams and tools that communicate and translate all this information from Jo’s world in the hospital to my world in the lab, and back again.

What we’ll soon be able to do at the Snow Centre for Immune Health is receive all that beautiful data from patients in the Snow Research Clinics, work out new ways to analyse it and try to predict the individual consequences.

We have strong foundations here at WEHI, but we need to build new tools and models to make this work. There’s a lot of science to do, but ultimately we hope we will have ways of measuring the whole immune response of individuals, instead of narrowly focusing in on one gene or disease. We think if anyone can do it, our team can.

It takes time and risk-taking to develop the people, tools and science to deliver a project of this scale. The long-term funding from Snow Medical means we can navigate through this journey together, and we are so grateful for their vision and support.

Jo and I could choose to finish our careers comfortably, publishing nice papers. Instead we’re drawing a line under that, because we’re both so excited by where this work can go. We think the centre can get somewhere really amazing.

First published on 28 May 2024
This article featured in Illuminate Newsletter Winter ‘24
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