Bid to understand antibody production wins NHMRC award

28 June 2018
Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers will unravel the genes that control the production of antibodies – immune proteins released to protect us from infectious agents.
Researchers standing together
Professor Stephen Nutt (L) and Associate Professor Wei Shi
received an NHMRC Research Excellence Award.

The research could lead to new approaches to boost immunity, or to ‘switch off’ harmful antibody-producing cells in diseases such as lupus and multiple myeloma

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.

At a glance

  • Antibodies are immune proteins that protect our body from infectious agents, but misdirected antibodies can cause harm if they target the body’s own tissues
  • Immunologist Professor Stephen Nutt and bioinformatician Associate Professor Wei Shi’s project proposal to investigate the genes controlling antibody production has won a NHMRC Research Excellence Award 
  • The research may lead to new therapies to improve immunity, prevent autoimmunity or suppress multiple myeloma, a cancer of antibody producing cells.


Essential protection from infection

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.”

New clues to future therapies

Schematic view of antibodies on a B cell surface


WEHI-TV view of antibodies on the surface
of B cells.

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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