Putting viruses to work in vaccines

September 28, 2005

Researchers at the University of South Australia are developing novel vaccines by using a chicken virus to either stimulate or suppress the body's immune system.

Dr John Hayball, a biomedical researcher from UniSA's Sansom Institute, is particularly interested in improving vaccines to use in the treatment of infections, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

Dr Hayball, Dr Michael Brown (Royal Adelaide Hospital) and Dr Paul Howley (Virax Holdings) were recently successful in winning a three-year Australian Research Council Linkage Project grant with industry partner Virax Holdings Limited to develop the fowlpox virus vector technology. A biotechnology company based in Melbourne, Virax is developing some of the world's most promising immune-based therapies for HIV/AIDS, other infectious diseases, autoimmune diseases and cancer.

"The fowlpox virus is an ideal vaccine vector because it does not cause disease when used in humans," Dr Hayball said.

Working under the supervision of this research team is UniSA medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology graduate and Adelaide University PhD student, Emma Beukema, who has been constructing the viruses for the project.

Industry partner Virax has proven results using the virus technology to develop an HIV vaccine, which is already in clinical use, demonstrating that immune based therapies are a rapidly emerging form of medical treatment. Virax is also funding the development of a novel fowlpox virus-based vaccine for the treatment of advanced prostate cancer. Dr Michael Brown, a medical oncologist and head of the Tumour Immunotherapy Laboratory, is developing this vaccine at the Royal Adelaide Hospital's Hanson Institute. The RAH Cancer Centre is the major centre for cancer clinical trials conducted in the state.

Dr Hayball is also a member of the Hanson Institute and already works with Dr Brown on an NH&MRC project grant. Together they supervise UniSA PhD student Kerri Diener, who has been establishing model systems of prostate cancer. "It is this collaborative framework which has allowed us to test novel immunotherapeutic approaches to prostate cancer and other important diseases," Dr Hayball said.

"Effective treatment of some diseases such as cancer requires the body's immune system to be triggered into action. On the other hand, autoimmune diseases are better treated if the immune system can be dampened. We can select genes that work against a disease and insert them into a virus, in our case the fowlpox virus. If we inject the modified virus into a patient where it targets certain immune cells, then we might be able to switch the immune system on or off and so help the body to treat itself," Dr Hayball said.
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