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Scope 66 - Research for Life funding enables in-depth look at MAIT cells

30 July 2018

The translational immunology team at the Malaghan Institute has recently secured a Research for Life grant to look at how an obscure type of immune cell is activated and controlled.

Known as MAIT cells (mucosal associated invariant T cells), these immune cells are a relatively recent discovery in the field of immunology – having only been studied for the past decade or so. Several different subsets of MAIT cells exist, but their functions and how they’re activated and controlled largely remains a mystery. 

Dr Katherine Wood of the translational immunology team will be leading the research, which looks to answer important questions about how to manipulate these cells to activate and suppress the immune system.

“It’s quite a simple study looking at human blood,” says Dr Woods. “Our aim is to isolate the MAIT cells and analyse them in different ways. Flow cytometry lets us look at specific activation markers on the MAIT cells and the new Seahorse technology lets us investigate the metabolics – what substrates are involved in activation. We should get some really clear information about different MAIT cell subsets, how and why they’re activated, and what activates them.

Dr Wood says knowledge-building is very important in this field because there’s so much science doesn’t yet know about why there are different subsets and why they behave differently.

“There may be a specific subset that is not acting in a way we want to – it’s too aggressive and it contributes to allergy, or maybe it’s suppressing other immune cells. If we know how each subset is activated and what it does once it’s activated, we also know how to potentially block it, or alternatively boost it if we want to.”