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Medical Health Aged Care, Science

First responders in our skin and gut revealed

Jian Zhou Medal, Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences 3 mins read

Offering new ways to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases

6 September 2023

Photos and videos available at www.scienceinpublic.com.au.

A decade ago, University of Melbourne’s Professor Laura Mackay discovered the “first responders” of our immune system, a unique population of T cells based in our skin, gut and other barrier tissues.

Now she’s working to super-charge their protective power to clear infections and fight cancer, and to calm them down to avoid skin autoimmune disease.

Professor Mackay leads the Immunology theme at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne.

She will receive the Jian Zhou Medal from the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences together with Sydney’s Professor David Ziegler who is trialling treatments for the fatal brain stem tumour DIPG, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. And he’s driving the development of the national Zero Childhood Cancer Program (ZERO), to give every child with cancer the best chance of an effective treatment.

The medal is named in honour of Professor Jian Zhou who coinvented the cervical cancer vaccine with Professor Ian Frazer. It is awarded annually by the Academy of Health and Medical Sciences for impact in translational medical research.

Researchers have long set their sights on reprogramming specific T cells in the blood as a possible saviour for many hard-to-treat diseases. Laura discovered that they were looking in the wrong place.

In a series of landmark studies, she found that a unique type of T cell exists in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues. She showed that these T cells are first responders, mounting a fast and effective immune response at the specific site of the infection.

“It was a real shift in thinking, because for a long time people thought that the T cells they were finding in tissues were just passers-by caught up in tissues,” Laura says.

“On comparing T cells in the blood versus T cells in tissues, we found that the genes and signals that control the survival of T cells in tissues is different, and we found that these T cells in tissues were more protective against infection and tumours.”

Today, thousands of researchers around the world are studying these Tissue-Resident Memory T cells (TRM cells). Laura and her team are now developing new strategies to boost the number of TRM cells and super-charge their protective power to clear infections and diseases such as breast cancer and melanoma.

“We’re also working on the other side of the coin, where these T cells can go rogue, leading to skin autoimmune conditions such as vitiligo, alopecia and psoriasis,” she says.

Jian Zhou Medal selection committee chair Professor Ian Frazer AC says, “Professor Mackay’s discovery of Tissue-Resident Memory T cells illustrates the importance of fundamental research in advancing medicine.”

AAHMS launched the Jian Zhou Medal in 2020 to recognise rising stars in Australian health and medical science. The award is made possible by a generous donation from the Frazer Family Foundation and the medal is designed and minted by the Royal Australian Mint.

Nominations for the 2023 medal will open in October this year.

Media: AAHMS Communication Manager Katie Rowney, katie.rowney@aahms.org, 07 3102 7212, 0419 787 551

Niall Byrne, niall@scienceinpublic.com.au, 0417 131 977

Read about the Jian Zhou Medal at https://aahms.org/programs/awards/jian-zhou-medal/

Media kit and video at www.scienceinpublic.com.au.

About the Academy

The Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences is the impartial, authoritative, cross-sector voice of health and medical science in Australia. We advance health and medical research in Australia and its translation into benefits for all, by fostering leadership within our sector, providing expert advice to decision makers, and engaging patients and the public.

We are an independent, interdisciplinary body of Fellows – elected by their peers for their outstanding achievements and exceptional contributions to health and medical science in Australia. Collectively, they are a representative and independent voice, through which we engage with the community, industry and governments.

The Academy is registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission (ACNC) and is endorsed as a deductible gift recipient.

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