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Scope 43 - Stumbling block for cancer vaccine - stepping stone for asthma vaccine

15 October 2010

Prof Franca Ronchese and colleagues at the Malaghan Institute have spent over 15 years developing a cancer vaccine that works by stimulating the Immune system to attack a patient's tumour. One of the biggest hurdles they have faced is maintaining the intensity of the Immune response over time.

Part of the reason for this is that under certain conditions specialised cells called cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) attack and kill the dendritic cells before they can do their job. Although dendritic cell killing is a stumbling block for a cancer vaccine, Prof Ronchese made the pivotal connection that this same phenomenon could be used to tone down the immune response in diseases where the immune system is overactive, such as asthma. Her research group went on to make the striking discovery that stimulating CTL's to get rid of dendritic cells in the airway prevented the development of allergic airway inflammation in an experimental model of acute disease.

This exciting research received HRC funding earlier this year to further explore the potential of CTL immunotherapy as a treatment for allergic asthma. This is a fine example of how a problem presented in one area of research has the potential to provide a breakthrough in another. The key to undertaking science that redefines our understanding and treatment of disease is in recognising such opportunities when they appear.
Did you know?
• Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease of major concern in NZ
• It affects 1 in 4 children and 1 in 6 adults
• During an asthma attack the lining of the bronchial tubes swells, causing the airways to narrow - this makes it hard to breathe in and even harder to breathe out
• The final symptoms of allergic asthma are due to activation of the Th2 immune response (which normally serves to protect us from parasite infections) by harmless environmental triggers such as pollen or house dust mites
• The current treatment for asthma is the use of steroid based preventer inhalers, which work to decrease airway inflammation