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The asthma vaccine story

21 November 2014

The novel thinking behind the asthma vaccine has its genesis in a discussion between Associate Professor Ian Hermans and Professor Franca Ronchese, puzzling over results from their cancer vaccine research.

The pair had noticed that the dendritic cell-based vaccines were very effective at starting an immune reaction, but almost not active at all once the reaction was established. Perhaps the immune reaction was blocking the activity of the dendritic cells?

Later, Professor Ronchese realised that the observation could be useful in another context. It was a turning point. “I wondered if this mechanism could be harnessed for asthma, where the dendritic cells are the ones that start the unwanted immune response, which leads to inflammation and the symptoms of asthma,” she explains.

The asthma vaccine, which is a chemically linked combination of adjuvant and antigen, was made by the Malaghan Institute’s chemistry collaborators at the Ferrier Research Institute. Linking the two components ensures they reach the target cells together and create a powerful, highly specific immune response.

The mice were sensitised to an egg-based allergen, immunised with the vaccine, then given the allergen to inhale. “We saw no inflammation in the immunised mice – it was a very exciting result.”

“What we think is happening is that we are directing the killer T cells to go and block the dendritic cells, so they stop sending out the wrong messages. It’s like taking out the generals of the enemy’s army in order to overpower it.”

Asthma – the facts

 •  New Zealand has the second highest rate of asthma worldwide

 •  Asthma affects 600,000 Kiwis and one in four New Zealand children

 •  Asthma’s economic burden in New Zealand is estimated at $800 million per year

The scientist behind the research
Ching-Wen Tang

Ching-Wen Tang always wanted to be involved in medical research. One of a family of six girls growing up in Wellington, Ching-Wen and two of her sisters discovered a love of science at high school. One of those sisters, Shiau-Choot, also works at the Malaghan Institute.

“So many people are affected by cancer that I wanted to help find better treatments. I work in cancer immunotherapy here, so it’s perfect.” Ching-Wen studied at the University of Otago with her sister, completing a Bachelor of Biomedical Sciences degree and a Master of Science.

In addition to her work on our cancer immunotherapy programme, Ching- Wen played a big part in the asthma vaccine research. Ching-Wen researches her methods and plans her lab work meticulously, well ahead of time.

“I did most of the experimental work to validate how the vaccine works, but there are still more questions than answers! That’s what makes science really exciting – there are so many things to discover and we work as a team to get there.

“My sisters and I still love to get together to talk about our science and I like to explain my discoveries to my younger sister too. Then I have to try really hard to understand her when she talks about political science! That’s not my strength at all!”