Kent laboratory: HIV vaccines; immune responses to HIV-1; immunotherapy

Research Overview

A vaccine against HIV and improved Influenza vaccines are urgently needed. The Kent lab is working towards these goals. Our dedicated staff and students drive innovation and new thinking in ways to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Prof Kent was awarded the Peter Doherty Award for Outstanding PhD Supervision which reflects the quality of our work and PhD students in this area.

  • The HIV problem

    The HIV pandemic continues to expand rapidly around the world, notably in the Asian-Pacific and Africa. Public health and economic burdens of HIV represent a major threat to regional and global security. Preventative strategies remain limited, and therapeutic options are restricted in both efficacy and implementation. The lack of an effective HIV vaccine is a catastrophic failure of our public health response to the epidemic.

    Better strategies are needed to prevent HIV infection and disease. This requires an understanding of how HIV causes AIDS, including which immune responses control HIV replication and which contribute to disease. A better understanding of effective immunity will expand the pipeline to novel treatment and prevention strategies. Despite the clear need, development of HIV-1 vaccines has proceeded for 20+ years without success. HIV has a propensity to mutate to avoid immune responses and form latent reservoirs - these are formidable challenges to developing successful vaccines. There is a palpable sense in the HIV vaccine research community that fresh innovative ideas are needed. Quantum leaps away from existing paradigms will be needed to make large inroads into defining protective immunity to HIV-1.

    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 recently developed a new and exciting technique to measure antibody dependent cellular cytotoxicity (ADCC), now headed by Dr Amy Chung and her group. We developed a very simple assay on small volumes of blood to measure ADCC responses and are now studying how useful it is in people with HIV and whether it forces the virus to mutate to escape this potentially important response. We have studied the importance of ADCC and activated NK cells in preventing and controlling HIV. Although T cell immunity is effective against the virus, immune escape is a hallmark of effective T cell immunity. We have developed innovative techniques to measure immune escape variants very sensitively. This allows us to study the impact of these escape mutants and whether it can force the virus into a weakened state. We have become very interested in how immune responses target the envelope protein of the virus. We are now trying to understand how neutralising antibodies and T cell immunity against envelope could help corner the virus. Recent work studied the importance of antibodies protecting against HIV in key animal models (Parsons 2018; 2017). We also have ongoing projects studying how small but important lymphocyte populations such as regulatory T cells, NKT cells, other CD1-restricted T cell and MAIT cells can help control HIV and other pathogens, led by Dr Jen Juno.

  • The Influenza Problem

    Seasonal influenza pandemics continue to sweep the globe, with the Melbourne 2017 winter a particularly severe epidemic. There is also the ever-present threat of new pandemics. Drs Adam Wheatley and Hyon-Xhi Tan are leading a vibrant team studying influenza immunity using a series of highly novel assays to probe B cell immunity. We have been able to adapt our novel ADCC assays to understand how ADCC immunity controls influenza pandemics.

    Our understanding of immune responses against HIV and Influenza allows us to push on with developing novel vaccine technologies. In particular we have an exciting project 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. In addition we have exciting projects studying influenza recombinant vaccines and their ability to induce resident memory T cells, headed by Dr Hyon-Xhi Tan. These flexible vaccine technologies allow us to refine our understanding of what will constitute effective immunity to HIV and Influenza.

    Recent work by PhD student Yi Liu and Dr Adam Wheatley has studied antibody immunity and influenza B. This was published in Nature Communications. Dr Hyon-Xhi Tan and colleagues recently helped study the immunodominance features of flu hemagglutinin published in JCI. Dr Jen Juno and PhD student Wenbo Jiang have been studying T-follicular helper responses to influenza.

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Dr Amy Chung, RO
Dr Jennifer Juno, RO
Dr Adam Wheatley  , RO
Dr Hyon-Xhi Tan, RO
Mr Wen Shi Lee, RO
Ester Lopez, RA 
Sriveni Pantham, RA 
Kathleen Wragg, RA
Ms Sheilajen Alcantara, TA
Ms Thakshila Amarasena, TA
Megan Schepers, TA
Ashley Owen, TA
Timon Damelang, PhD
Robyn Esterbauer, RA
Wenbo Jiang, PhD
Hannah Kelly, PhD 
Mr Kevin John Selva, PhD
Julius Wong, PhD
Matthew Worley, PhD 
Samantha Davis, PhD
Milla Mclean, RA
Ebene Haycroft, Honours student
Yi Liu, PhD