|Dr Danika Hill is a National Health and|
Medical Research Council ECR Fellow
in Prof David Tarlinton's lab. See video
Danika started 1 July as a National Health and Medical Research Council Early Career Research Fellow in Professor David Tarlinton's group in Central Clinical School's Department of Immunology and Pathology. Prior to that, she was working at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge UK, where she did the research which earned her the prize. She will carry out the research funded by the prize at Monash University. A Q&A with Danika reveals more about her project, her discipline area and her passionate scientific curiosity.
How will the Michelson Prize help you in your research?
The Michelson Prize comes at a critical time in my career, and will enable me to gain more independence as a researcher. It will support me to continue to study a type of immune cell that is critical for generating long-lived immunity, the T follicular helper (Tfh) cells, but in much greater detail that has previously been studied in humans.
With the Michelson Prize, I will focus on Group A Streptococcus infection. This bacteria can cause pharyngitis and skin infections, but can also initiate the autoimmune disease, acute rheumatic fever, which in turn can result in permanent heart damage. Therefore, Group A Streptococcus is among the top ten global causes of death related to infection. However, there still isn’t a vaccine available. I will be supported by the prize to apply cutting-edge technologies to study hundreds of thousands of cells in molecular detail, with the aim of developing a novel approach to vaccine design that exploits similarities in the receptors on Tfh cells to pinpoint what to target on a pathogen to make an effective vaccine.
What has been your most impactful scientific finding so far?
Similar to our DNA code, everybody’s immune system is uniquely different. This is a major challenge when developing a vaccine, which needs to work for most people. However, we identified that in the blood of people who had received vaccines for influenza or malaria, we could find a number of Tfh cells with receptors made from a common DNA sequence. The Michelson prize will enable me to build upon my discoveries and look for shared receptor sequences in Group A Streptoccocus, and work backwards to uncover exactly what it is that the immune system is responding to. I believe that these common targets have great potential to be developed into vaccines.
Can you share a defining moment in your work as a researcher?
Most vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies. This requires a highly coordinated response to occur between multiple immune cells within our lymph nodes. So this response is hidden deep within our tissues, which makes it hard to understand what is happening during an infection or after a vaccine.
My work has shown that there are rare cells in the blood that look like, and behave similarly to, the highly specialised Tfh cells within the lymph nodes. It means that what is hidden becomes visible, i.e. we can use a blood sample to capture a glimpse of that response happening inside the body.
This project will use blood samples collected from participants of controlled infection studies with Group A Streptococcus (in collaboration with Professor Andrew Steer, Murdoch Children’s Research Institute). These blood samples will provide an unparalleled opportunity to better understand how the immune system responds to this important global pathogen.
What is your ultimate motivation that keeps you going?
Vaccines have tremendous power to improve health throughout our lives. But there are a range of infections for which we still need effective vaccines, meaning that there are millions of lives that could potentially be saved every year if we had more vaccines. The immune system is like a giant puzzle with so many different pieces that need to work together to keep us healthy. I hope that by better understanding how the different parts of the immune system work together we can learn how to better harness its power through vaccines to improve health outcomes for everyone in the world.