Dr. Daniel Pellicci’s research is probing unconventional types of infection-fighting T cells that combine speed and effectiveness, in a bid to find new ways to combat diseases like tuberculosis.

The work concentrates on the immune system. It primarily focuses on a subset of white blood T cells, which have been conserved through evolution for millions of years to keep us fit and healthy.

The researchers are trying to understand the role of these T cells in the immune system and how they keep us free from disease. Basic science and curiosity-driven research provide the unexpected breakthroughs that contribute to the big leaps forward.

As the ‘first responders,’ their job is to kick-start the immune response and recruit other aspects of the immune system to mount a comprehensive fight against the invading infections, whether it’s bacteria or yeast.

The researchers have found that some white blood T cells represent a very large proportion of the human immune system they are very frequent in human blood and probably in human tissue as well. Some of these cells can identify certain infections quite specifically.

Immune system

The two types of these T cells that are MAIT cells and CD1 restricted T cells. Both of these recognize different parts of a bacterial pathogen. They are unique because they can potently respond in minutes to hours after encountering an infection. They are called ‘unconventional T cells’. There are two parts of the immune system, the adaptive part which generally can take days to swing into action, and the innate part, which acts quickly.

Unconventional T cells have all the features of adaptive immune cells but act very quickly and, as a result, are thought to bridge the gap between innate and adaptive immunity.

With a better understanding of these T cells, we could potentially exploit them to treat human disease. In fact, some of them are already being trialed as immunotherapeutic targets to fight some types of cancer and infections.  

The researcher has recently developed some great new techniques to study these cells and he is now poised to explore how they can be used to combat Mycobacterium Tuberculosis (TB), which continues to kill over a million people a year.

"I would like to find a way to exploit unconventional T cells to potentially boost the current Bacille Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine, a vaccine effective in young children, but less effective in older people," said Pellicci.

"As TB becomes increasingly resistant to some antibiotics, a vaccine that boosts the immune system may help protect against the disease and importantly, save lives," said Pellicci.