Why is it that some of our individual immune systems are susceptible to particular diseases while others are protected? Is our western lifestyle increasing chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes?
These are some of the questions driving medical research at Centenary and the subject of study by immunologists in our T cell Biology group which is led by Professor Barbara Fazekas de St Groth, also our Assistant Director.
"Our environment and the lifestyles we lead can have a bigger influence on health than our genetic makeup. The western lifestyle has led to the rise of chronic diseases such as allergies and asthma, as well as other immune system disorders like type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.
"We need to understand how our immune systems have changed in response to the western lifestyle. By studying the immune systems of people living in developing countries who are less susceptible to these diseases, we can see what has changed in people in developed countries. We need to work out which environmental changes are responsible for immune abnormalities in the west in order to reverse those changes and return our immune systems to a healthy state." (Professor Fazekas)
Chronic diseases are the leading causes of death and disability in Australia. Professor Fazekas has invested over 25 years in medical research following her training as a medical doctor and she is passionate about finding pathways to fine-tune the immune system to reduce the impact of chronic diseases.
What is important to realise is that immunology research is applicable to so manykinds of chronic diseases, not only in terms of autoimmune diseases and allergies, but also cancer.
An immune system that is too active promotes inflammation and chronic diseases like allergies, asthma and arthritis, and even progression to cancer. Yet if it is too weak, we suffer infections including those that cause cancer.
One of our major goals is to ensure that every child starts life with the best possible chance of achieving longer-term immune health, free of allergy, autoimmunity and inflammatory disease. Another of our major goals is to harness the immune system in the fight against cancer.
"Our immune system is central for health, acting as the security guard of our body. Made of a complex network of molecules, cells and organs, it provides layers of defence to remove disease-causing stimuli.
"My group concentrates on the network managers of the immune system: regulatory T cells (T regs). T regs are a small but essential group of cells at the centre of the immune control network. They are absolutely crucial for the prevention of immune system mediated diseases. How regulatory T cells perform this vital function is a major focus of our research. Understanding the mechanism of action of these cells will ultimately lead to cures for sufferers of immune system mediated diseases.
"Tumours survive and grow by evading immune system control. We are studying how different immune cell types interact with each other and the tumour. To make this possible, we use models in which we can track individual immune cell responses to molecules associated with the tumour. Our research has shown that T regs promote the survival of tumour cells, presenting us with a new target for cancer therapeutics.
"My team is also working on some new studies with patients suffering immune-mediated diseases, such as asthma, lupus erythematous, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis. Some preliminary key insights are already showing that this comparative research will help lead to prevention and cures, not just treatments." (Professor Fazekas)
The number of people with autoimmune and allergic diseases has more than doubled in the past 20 years and the rate is expected to rise. With at least one in five Australians living with these illnesses, you can appreciate the incredible health toll on our community – personally and financially – especially when you add the high incidence of cancer to these numbers.
This is why immunology research is so critical. We still need to understand more about how the immune system functions so we can get closer to protecting the immune system for future generations. Our medical discoveries form a vital step in preventing, treating and curing chronic diseases. Click here for more information or to make your donation.