What do we know about natural killer cells?

4 June 2015

AIL symposium Dr Nick Huntington - photo credit Joanna Groom WEHIMRHow do specialised immune cells – known as natural killer (NK) cells – develop in our bodies and protect us from infection and cancer?

100 Australian and international specialists and students will come together next week to address these topics at the Walter + Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) for the First Australian Innate Lymphocyte Symposium (AILS2015) sponsored by the Menzies Foundation.

Dr Nick Huntington, Laboratory Head for the Molecular Immunology Division at WEHI and 2006 RG Menzies/NHMRC Fellow, is the chief organiser of this premier research symposium.

The symposium features several international experts in the field of innate immunology, including Professors Eric Vivier (France), Dale Godfrey, Mark Smyth (Australia), Sophie Ugolini (France) and Gabrielle Belz (Australia).

Dr Huntington says “Innate lymphoid cells themselves are at the forefront of immunological research and are responsible for anti-tumour, bacterial and viral defence. Australia has some of the world leaders on innate lymphoid cells”. 

Dr Huntington hopes next week’s symposium will help identify key research areas and opportunities for further collaboration to advance the knowledge and utility for innate lymphocytes biology in human diseases such as chronic inflammatory disease and cancer.

“Internationally, we typically meet every 18 months during the Society for Natural Immunity meeting. This is the first local meeting of its kind and we are confident that the success of AILS2015 will set the precedent for biennial AILS meetings in Australia”.

Dr Huntington and his research colleagues at WEHI last year published research showing NK cells could be harnessed to find and kill cancers that had spread in the body such as melanoma cells that had spread to the lungs.

At AILS2015 he will be presenting novel data on a key regulatory pathway in innate lymphocytes that promotes their development at the expense of other types of lymphocytes. This pathway assures that innate lymphocytes can be rapidly generated when required, such in the case of pathogen infection.

Dr Huntington says by mastering the understanding of how innate lymphocytes such as NK cells are maintained and activated in our bodies, we are working on an approach to trick NK cells into believing that all cancer cells are in fact foreign pathogens in order to increase NK cell activity. “We hope to develop drugs that keep NK cells ‘switched on’ in cancer patients to improve patient outcomes via improved tumour cell killing”, he said.

Student Seminar and Poster Prize

As part of next week’s symposium there will also be a Menzies Foundation Student Seminar and Poster Prize awarded.  

The student and post-doctoral seminars and posters presented at AILS2015 will be judged on technical quality, novelty and most importantly how well the message is conveyed.

“Good scientific communication skills are key to progressing our field and increase the awareness of the important research we do in medical research institutes across Australia,” Dr Huntington said.

“We will surely witness presentations from future Australian scientific leaders and identifying and recognising this is really important for their career progression. The support I was offered from the Menzies Foundation was instrumental in my scientific progression and these Menzies Foundation awards will be very encouraging for the winners.”

NHMRC/R G Menzies Fellowship

Nick kick-started his career with the assistance of the NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellowship which enabled him to work at the Department of Cytokines and Lymphoid Development, Pasteur Institute, Paris, France.

In addition to studying at the Pasteur Institute, the Fellowship allowed Nick to continue his interest in NK cells, publish widely and travel to conferences to interact with international peers. He also won a commendation for the Victorian Premier’s award for medical research.

The NHMRC/RG Menzies Fellowship provides opportunities for Australian researchers to undertake research that is both of major importance in its field and of benefit to Australian health. A major objective is to foster career development at the postdoctoral level by encouraging the beneficial experience of a different research environment.