Two sides of the immunity coin:
Dr. Brent Johnston aims to tone down immune reactions in rheumatoid arthritis, ramp them up against cancer
Dr. Brent Johnson wants to know what drives immune cells to migrate to the joints and wreak progressively painful damage in rheumatoid arthritis. "The process could be triggered by an injury or infection that activates the immune system... but we don't know what it is that draws the immune cells so specifically to the joints," says Dr. Johnston, Canada Research Chair in Inflammation and Immunity and associate professor in the departments of Microbiology & Immunology, Pediatrics, and Pathology at Dalhousie Medical School.
Dr. Johnston and his team are studying how molecules called chemokines activate immune cells and direct them to the joints, in an effort to pinpoint the upstream events that lead to joint inflammation and damage. "If we can identify what is making immune cells go to the joints, we could devise a strategy to block them," he notes. They're also looking at the role of natural killer T cells in the development of arthritis, while learning how to mobilize these powerful cells in the fight against cancer.
“Once activated, natural killer T cells can set off an aggressive immune response against tumour cells," Dr. Johnston says. "The challenge then is to direct that response to the location of the primary tumour."
In essence, Brent Johnston works on both sides of the immunity coin. "Cancer and autoimmune disease are becoming ever more common," he says. "We must find ways to both ramp up and tone down the immune response to prevent sickness and disability."
Dr. Johnston and his team will be able to progress much more quickly in their efforts to unravel the mysteries of rheumatoid arthritis, and to harness the immune system against cancer, with the arrival of a new high-speed flow cytometer. The sophisticated cell-analysis equipment will be purchased with the proceeds of the 2012 Molly Appeal.