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Head of Unit

Professor Stephen Kent
E: skent@unimelb.edu.au
Location: Level 6, Rm N607, Medical Building - Bldg 181 (part of Peter Doherty Institute for Infection & Immunity, Parkville)
W: Professor Kent's Departmental Research pages

2023 Kent Lab Group photo Kent Laboratory

Pandemic Coronavirus research

The Kent lab began working on the pandemic coronavirus research since early 2020. We have taken our knowledge on immunity to HIV and Influenza and applying it to develop antibody treatments and vaccines for SARS-CoV2, the cause of the COVID-19 illness. We have recruited blood and other samples from people who have recovered from COVID-19 to understand how their antibodies work to control COVID-19. Research led by Adam Wheatley and his team has generated monoclonal antibodies as a potential therapy or prophylaxis for COVID-19 . Our work on generating monoclonal antibodies against influenza provides a sound basis for this. Together with collaborators we have been awarded over $9m of MRFF and Victorian government funding to pursue this research towards human trials.

Dr Wen Shi Lee in our group together with Dr Amy Chung’s group are trying to understand the role Fc functions of anti- SARS-CoV2 antibodies play in assisting immunity – this is an area we have extensively worked on for HIV and Influenza. We are attempting to dissect the role of prior human coronavirus infection on subsequent immunity to COVID-19.

Dr Hyon-Xhi Tan in our group is also making prototype vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 based on our track record in InfluenzaHIV and with nanoparticles. We are developing self-assembling ferritin nanoparticle vaccines, analogous to our recently published work in Influenza, and are testing them in the laboratory. We have $3m in MRFF funding to pursue vaccine approaches that avoid the problem of immune imprinting and Dr Janavi Rambhatla is helping project manage this work. We plan to improve antibody responses through induction of T-follicular helper responses, a critically important cell in the lymph node. We are studying the best timing of administering COVID-19 vaccines in a clinical trial together with the Royal Melbourne Hospital.

Despite receiving vaccines, many people still acquire breakthrough COVID-19 although it is usually milder than in the unvaccinated. We are working to understand the types of immunity associated with control of breakthrough COVID-19 – we have evidence that both antibodies and T cells make important contributions.

Cellular immunity plays a role in controlling COVID-19. We are studying T cell responses in subjects who have recovered from COVID-19 and/or received COVID-19 vaccines in work led by Dr Jen Juno. Jen leads a group with a strong record in studying T cell responses to HIV, Tb and Influenza, including MAIT cells, CD1-restricted cells and gamma-delta T cells.

HIV Vaccines

An HIV vaccine is urgently needed. To further understand how immune responses can control HIV, we have a series of projects involved in developing new assays to measure immunity and the effect these immune responses have on the virus. We have extensively studied antibody dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC), which appears to play a role in vaccine-induced immunity to HIV. We are also trying to understand how neutralising antibodies that have ADCC activity can control HIV. We have ongoing projects led by Dr Jen Juno studying small but important lymphocyte populations such as T-follicular helper cells, gamma-delta T cells, MAIT cells and NKT cells. In work with European collaborators, we have been studying multivalent HIV-1 Env based SOSIP trimer vaccine strategies.

Influenza Vaccines

Seasonal Influenza continues to extract a huge toll on the community and there is the ever-present threat of new pandemics. Led by Dr Adam Wheatley we are making headway into improving our understanding of influenza immunity with a view to improving vaccines. Current vaccines are imperfect and often target variable regions of the virus which “drift” away from effective immunity each winter. We are focussing on improving immunity, both antibodies and CD4 T cell helper cells (“Tfh”) to conserved parts of influenza, including the stem of HA. We also have a major interest in improving ADCC antibodies against influenza. Led by Drs Mario Koutsakos and Lara Schwab, our group has had a major push to understand and improve immunity to Influenza type B viruses and we have generated panels of monoclonal antibodies that target this virus.

Cells in the lung, both T cells and B cells, appear to be important in immunity to repeated infection with influenza. Led by Dr Hyon-Xhi Tan, we are starting to understand how immune cells lodge and organise themselves in the lung and fight off new influenza virus or COVID-19 infections.

Our understanding of immune responses against Influenza allows us to push on with developing novel vaccine technologies. In particular we have exciting projects studying nanoparticle vaccines where tiny capsules are loaded with vaccine antigens to protect them from degradation and target important immune cells that stimulate effective immunity. Dr Mai Vu has been studying liposomal and ferritin particle vaccines and more recent lipid nanoparticle vaccines.

Nanoparticle Vaccine Research

The Kent group has been part of an Australian Research Council funded Centre of Excellence on nanomedicine.  We have a series of work studying how small particles “nanoparticles” interact with the immune system and how this could be exploited in the future as vaccines or therapies. We have collaborated widely with most of the groups within our centre, including the Caruso group in Melbourne and Thurecht group at UQ . We are hosting research in our lab from Dr David Ju at RMIT.  We are actively working on self-assembling ferritin nanoparticle vaccines and lipid nanoparticle based vaccines for influenza and SARS-CoV2.