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Stumbling block for cancer vaccine – stepping stone for asthma vaccine

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 CTLs 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.