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HRC grant to investigate the link between dendritic cells and allergic skin disease

27 July 2021

The Malaghan Institute’s Professor Franca Ronchese and Dr Maia Brewerton have been awarded a $1.2M Health Research Council Project Grant to investigate the link between dendritic cells and allergic disease in the skin.


The three-year programme, which will compare inflammatory responses in healthy individuals with those suffering allergic disease, is part of wider research at the Institute to find new, more effective ways to treat skin disease such as eczema, and provide relief for those with debilitating allergic conditions.

Dendritic cells are a key immune cell of interest for allergy research, due to their role in initiating different kinds of immune responses. They patrol the body’s tissues and organs, ‘priming’ the immune response as they pick up evidence of infection or dangerous interlopers and present this information as antigens to the rest of the immune system.

Prof Ronchese’s Immune Cell Biology team will work with Auckland-based clinical immunologist Dr Brewerton, to better understand these cells’ involvement in initiating allergic responses in the skin.

“Dr Brewerton will be helping run feasibility studies where we aim to use a ‘blister’ method to analyse skin dendritic cells from healthy volunteers and patients with inflammatory skin disease,” says Prof Ronchese. “For now we just want to know whether we can gather enough material to conduct the study. If we do, we’ll aim to expand it to a larger group of patients.” 

The feasibility study will provide valuable insight into the cellular and genetic differences that push a person’s dendritic cells to initiating the allergic inflammatory response.

Immune responses can be either good or bad, depending on whether the response is to a threat (such as a virus) or something harmless (such as dairy products). Researchers believe dendritic cells are directly involved in the initiation of harmful immune responses leading to the development of allergies and inflammatory conditions. Understanding the triggers of this, and what signals nudge dendritic cells towards initiating allergies is one of the things this research will explore in detail.

And a naturally occurring signalling molecule – IL-13 – may be key to this.

“IL-13 is known to drive the allergic response when it comes into contact with immune cells, particularly in the lung,” say Prof Ronchese. “However, our previous research has shown that at least for the skin, this isn't the case and in fact dendritic cells in the skin need a certain amount of IL-13 present in order to develop and function properly.

“We want to understand better how IL-13 changes the molecular makeup of dendritic cells and other skin cells when they are exposed to allergens. And we want to look at dendritic cells in patients with inflammatory skin disease such as eczema and psoriasis which is why the collaboration with Dr Brewerton is so important to finding new treatment options.”