Medical breakthrough for Melbourne family unlocks key to immune system

14 August 2015
Related topics
Two researchers in a laboratory, looking at an experiment
Dr Vanessa Bryant (left) and Dr Charlotte Slade have
found a new gene involved in primary immune deficiency.
Melbourne medical researchers are at the forefront of an international collaboration to uncover a new genetic cause of primary immune deficiency in a Melbourne family. 

The breakthrough, led by a team at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, identified a new gene affecting the cellular pathway NF kappa B1. The gene was discovered in families from Australia, The Netherlands, Germany and New Zealand.

Professor Jo Douglass, director of immunology and allergy at The Royal Melbourne Hospital’s Professor at the University of Melbourne said the exciting discovery would lead to improved diagnosis of common variable immune deficiency (CVID). “Patients with primary immune deficiencies require life-long treatment for their condition, usually administration of antibody treatment to supplement their immune system,” Professor Douglass said.

The findings, to be published today in the American Journal of Human Genetics, results from an international collaboration studying families with CVID, one of the most common forms of primary immune deficiency.  

These patients suffer recurrent health problems, despite lifelong replacement antibody therapy, and may develop other serious diseases such as autoimmune disease and cancer more frequently than the healthy population, significantly reducing their quality of life and life expectancy.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Vanessa Bryant said the discovery involved working with Professor Bodo Grimbacher in Freiburg and Professor Rohan Ameratunga in Auckland to identify a new genetic factor for CVID.

“Accurate molecular diagnosis will have a great impact on management and treatment of immune disorders and their complications,” Dr Bryant said. “We sequence protein-encoding regions of the genome in patients with primary immunodeficiency, which allows the effective analysis of the part of the genome most frequently affected by disease-causing mutations. These genetic-based diagnoses will guide personalised targeted therapies in the future.”

Dr Charlotte Slade, clinical immunologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said this critical discovery had come just in time for the Melbourne family. “We discovered the mother and daughter were both carriers of the mutated gene,” Dr Slade said.

“More importantly, the daughter is now in the last trimester of pregnancy and our discovery allowed us to start her on antibody treatment to help her continue with a healthy pregnancy. “We are now one step closer to finding new treatments for the condition, which will be life changing for the one in 10,000 people whose immune system cannot defend the body from infections.”

The research was supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, e:MedSys INFLAME Collaborative Project, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the Auckland Medical Research Foundation, the Auckland Ditsrict Health Board Charitable Trust, the New Zealand eScience Infrastructure and the Victorian Government Operational Infrastructure Support Program.

Further information

Liz Williams
Media and Publications Manager
M: 0428 034 089
E: williams@wehi.edu.au

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