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Growing understanding of immune system a game-changer

Growing understanding of immune system a game-changer for human health


World-leading New Zealand immunologist Professor Graham Le Gros says we are on the cusp of exciting breakthroughs in our fight against disease as knowledge of our immune system grows exponentially.

The Director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research says the Day of Immunology, marked internationally on 29 April 2018, is a time to acknowledge the extraordinary potential and impact of immunology research underway here in New Zealand and across the globe.

“Immunology is the future of human health – it’s game changing. As we better understand how our immune system works, and how it can be harnessed to fight disease, we’re poised for new, gentler and more effective treatments for cancer, asthma and allergy, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s, gut disease and many other debilitating diseases.”

Prof. Le Gros says that vaccines and immunisations give a glimpse of the power of immunotherapy – teaching the immune system to fight disease by mimicking a natural infection.

“What is less well known, is that our immune system can also protect us from developing non-infectious diseases such as cancer. And research has shown that our immune system plays an important role in the development of allergic disorders and in many common disorders not traditionally viewed as immunologic, including metabolic and neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.”

In 2017, the Malaghan Institute took the first step in developing New Zealand’s answer to the latest in cancer vaccines. CAR-T cell therapy is a revolutionary new approach to fighting cancer by redirecting a patient’s own immune cells to impart long-lasting protection against the disease.

“Later this year, through a collaboration with an international biotech group Hunan Zhoatai Medical Group, we’re aiming to conduct our first small CAR-T clinical trials, with the goal of developing a more effective and longer-lasting way to fight certain cancers.”

Prof. Le Gros says Malaghan Institute scientists were also studying the early life processes in the immune system that begin the over-active immune responses characteristic of eczema, allergies and asthma.

“We’re looking at the mechanisms that parasitic worms use to subdue the immune system because of their potential to dampen harmful inflammatory immune responses, such as those made in asthma and allergy.”

Understanding the virtuous relationship between the immune system, our food environment and the macro and microorganisms that live in and on us is also a key focus for the Institute in 2018.

“By undertaking research into the basic biology of the immune system and developing immunotherapies and vaccines that supercharge the immune system, or downregulate overactive immune responses, our scientists are striving to make a genuine difference to the way we treat disease in this country.”

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