Biochemistry & Molecular Biology

    Research areas

  • immunology, cancer, vaccination, autoimmune disease


andlsquo;Custom-made' immunity to target cancer

Cutting-edge medical research is examining ways to tailor the body's own antibodies or to create new antibodies to boost the immune system of patients suffering from cancer or serious infections. Dr Di Yu leads research using the immune system's own helper T cells to kick-start a slow immune system or strengthen a weak one. Di says the technique has the potential to help combat cancers and even to create a new way of producing vaccines.

Standard cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation weaken patients by destroying healthy cells along with cancer cells. But the immune system can actually distinguish between the two.

'The immune system just needs to work harder and focus on eradicating just the cancer cells,' Di says. 'People are beginning to think about how to control the immune system to better treat cancer. Eventually, we want to combine traditional treatments with modulating the immune system.'

Di's work is geared to fine-tuning the immune system so that it is strong enough to fight tumour cells or pathogens without turning on itself. Sometimes the antibodies that fight disease also mistakenly attack a healthy body, creating an autoimmune disease.

'We have to keep the immune system balanced so the response is good enough to protect the body from infection and tumours, but does not overpower it,' he says.

High affinity antibodies are generated by the body with help from T cells. Di's research has helped to characterise a specific subset of helper T cells, known as follicular helper T(Tfh)-cells.

Di's enthusiasm for science, and immunology in particular, was triggered during biology classes at school in his home country, China.
It has led him to a role as head of the immunology research laboratory at Monash University and national and international recognition for his research. This includes an International Research Award from the Australian Society for Medical Research and an Excellence Award from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

'Immunology allows you to connect basic science with a real situation,' he says. 'Understanding the molecular mechanisms for different cell functions allows us to design new strategies to promote antibody responses to pathogens for vaccinations or suppress the body's self-responses to treat autoimmune diseases.'

Di is being funded through the Australian Research Council (ARC), the NHMRC, the Ramaciotti Foundation and Monash University.

He and his research team are in the process of developing immune-enhancing antibodies by screening. Clinical trials of immune-enhancing antibodies have shown an improvement in survival rates of cancer sufferers.

Immunity-enhancing antibodies are also promising to control chronic infections that weaken the immune system over time such as HIV, hepatitis B virus (HBV) and hepatitis C virus (HCV). Vaccinations can offer potentially life-long protection from HBV and HCV by encouraging the cells to produce pathogen-specific antibodies to ward off these infections.

ID: 837060