Brisbane malaria research starts a war on disease

Michelle Wykes

Taking control of the conversations between the cells in our immune system could be the key for treating malaria, cancer and other infectious diseases, according to Brisbane immunologist Michelle Wykes.

Dr Wykes, the group leader of the Molecular Immunology Laboratory at QIMR Berghofer is conducting potentially life-saving research into malaria which is now being applied to cancer research, autoimmune research and other infectious disease research around the world. 

Recently published in the prestigious scientific journal Immunity, Dr Wykes’ research on malaria is focused on an immune cell called the dendritic cell, which is central to the body’s immune responses. What started as a project to try to stop hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including children, from dying of malaria each year has morphed into research work to try to develop a new treatment for cancer, as well as a range of other diseases.

“I describe the dendritic cell as the general of the immune army because it is the cell type that can actually sense if malaria is around, if cancer is around. It senses its environment and has the ability to call these immune cells and say ‘go fight this disease’,” Dr Wykes said.

“I started to look at dendritic cells and it became very clear that they send out signals that tell immune cells to go and fight disease and other signals that say ‘stop fighting that disease’.”

Dr Wykes focused on one particular signal, or “pathway,” and discovered that what was always thought to be a stop signal was actually the dendritic cell talking to the immune cells and giving them a start signal.  

“We found this molecule, or protein, was important in the immune system’s response to malaria.  We made an artificial form of it and tested it in the lab with mice and not only did we clear the mice of lethal malaria, we actually made them resistant to new infections,” she said. 

Dr Wykes is now testing this molecule in other diseases including cancer and autoimmune conditions. 

“The same cell type that kills malaria also kills cancer, so if I understand how to wake up the cell types to kill malaria, I can wake up the cell types to kill cancer and I can also learn to control cells that can control autoimmunity,” Dr Wykes said. “It is very early days but we are having really cool results and it just shows you how every piece of basic research has value.” 

The impact of her work is already being felt around the world with many researchers requesting Dr Wykes’ protein to test in their own work, particularly in the infectious disease space. 

“A lot of people want this protein and they want to see how it affects their models, or whatever diseases they are studying,” she said. 

Longer term, Dr Wykes believes this pathway will change the way we treat many diseases. 

“I really do believe this pathway has the potential to be a cure for disease,” she said. “We have found something that is very exciting and very capable of starting an immune war and what this means is that rather than just depending on drugs, we hope we can train our own immune systems to fight disease.”

Dr Wykes has worked in Perth, in London and at Oxford University, but said Brisbane was the perfect place to conduct important medical research because of the high calibre of the city’s medical research industry. 

“When you do science, you want to work with the best people, cutting-edge equipment and the best infrastructure because it helps your research,” she said. “Places like QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute are incredible places to work because the equipment is state of the art, and you are working with the best in your field, so you are not behind anyone in any other country.”

“There are also great people in Brisbane and a great critical mass, which means if you have questions about your work there are enough people with the right expertise to collaborate with.”