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Connie Gilfillan’s research at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

PhD student Connie Gilfillan researches an immune cell population that was discovered in 1973

MEDICAL RESEARCH STORY   I   13 November 2015

Cancer research at the Malaghan Institute operates on several fronts with many intersecting approaches, all seeking breakthroughs which will help to contribute to novel New Zealand-made health treatments. 

PhD student Connie Gilfillan’s research at Malaghan focuses on Dendritic cells (DCs), which are an immune cell population that was only discovered in 1973. Making up less than 1% of our white blood cells, the DC’s role is to interact and sample the cellular environment ‘looking for trouble’ and communicating with other immune cells to mount an attack.

The potential to treat cancer by targeting the immune system is becoming a reality as decades of medical research to understand the complexity of the immune system bears fruit. Increasingly the word ‘immunotherapy’ is starting to enter the public domain. It is a huge paradigm shift for medicine as immunotherapies are designed not to target disease directly but the immune system itself, acting to create the appropriate immune response and clear the body of disease. DCs are known as the communicators of the immune system, finding foreign material in the body they can use to stimulate the ‘attacking’ cells of the immune system. Immunotherapy often involves targeting DCs to provide them with extra assistance and to boost immune responses. While the latest (and hugely expensive) immunotherapy drugs from offshore are delivering success for greater numbers of patients, they still do not work for all. Greater understanding on the interaction between immunotherapies and the targeted systems is needed.

The main area of Connie’s research is looking into the role of DCs in immunotherapy treatment. Within the dendritic cell family, there are many different subsets that have specialised functions. The questions her work poses are whether these different subsets are required for successful immunotherapy and how they are interacting with the rest of the immune system. Since DCs mediate between the foreign invader and the targeted attack, Connie wants to know how their presence or absence affects the tumour microenvironment and the other immune cells involved in the anti-tumour response.  The latest technology enables her to deplete DCs in laboratory models and study the impact on the immune system and consequently, the success of immunotherapy.  

Connie is more than two years into her PhD under supervisors Professor Franca Ronchese, Dr Melanie McConnell (VUW), and Professor Brett Delahunt (Otago).

PhD student Connie Gilfillan researches an immune cell population that was discovered in 1973

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