The project’s lead researchers Professor Stephen Nutt and Associate Professor Wei Shi have received an Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Research Excellence Award for the top-ranked research project proposal in 2017.
Professor Nutt and Associate Professor Shi’s research investigates the factors controlling the production of antibodies, immune proteins that specifically recognise and bind other proteins, which are a critical component of our immune defences.
Long-lived immune cells known as plasma cells produce antibodies following exposure to an infectious agent, or after vaccination, and can protect against future infections by the same infection, Professor Nutt said.
“Antibody production is essential for our health. People who do not produce enough antibodies – a class of conditions called primary immunodeficiencies – are at risk of recurrent infections,” he said. “Conversely, excessive or inappropriate antibody production can contribute to diseases such as lupus.
“By understanding in detail how antibody producing cells are generated and function, we aim to understand diseases that stem from faulty antibody production. We also hope to gain new insights into cancers arising from plasma cells, an incurable disease called multiple myeloma.”
The research project combines Professor Nutt’s knowledge and skills in immunology with Associate Professor Shi’s expertise in bioinformatics. The team has already identified more than 300 genes that may be important contributors to plasma cell development and function, Associate Professor Shi said.
“The funding we have received from NHMRC is allowing us to take the next step of discovering precisely what role these genes play in plasma cells,” he said. “We will use the powerful bioinformatics tools we have developed to discover genes that specifically for genes that drive or prevent plasma cell production, as well as those that allow long-lived antibody secretion.”
Professor Nutt said that by pinpointing the most important genes that influence antibody production, the team hopes that the project will provide potential new targets for therapies that modify plasma cells or alter antibody production.
“We hope that in the future this may allow clinicians to boost the production of beneficial antibodies, suppress the production of harmful antibodies, or even have applications for treating multiple myeloma,” he said.
In addition to support from the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council, the research has received support from the Victorian Government and Cancer Council Victoria. Associate Professor Shi is supported by a CSL-WEHI Centenary Fellowship.
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