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T cell research holds key to understanding rare disease

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For Jenee Mitchell a love of high school biology led to her pursuing a STEM career, almost 10 years later. After aspiring to a career in medical/immunology research, she completed a Bachelor Degree in Applied Science (Hons) at Federation University Australia. Today Jenee is a PhD Student and researcher at the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute located at Ballarat – and just one of the applicants for the Campus Travel 2017 Travel Grant Series: Recognising women in STEM.

What is your specialist field of study?
I am working with a team of researchers at the Institute to understand more about the role of the immune system in Langerhans cell histiocytosis (LCH) - a rare immune cell disease. While scientists are still divided over whether this is a cancer, or an immune dysfunction, LCH is a challenging disease that affects around 1 in 200,000 children a year – while being less common in adults. The disease causes inflammatory lesions in the body’s organs and can unfortunately lead to organ failure.

We are currently leading the research on LCH in Australia and we believe we are the only research team investigating the role of ‘unconventional T cells’ in LCH. In particular we are focussing on MAIT cells (mucosal associated invariant T cells), a newly discovered type of unconventional T cell.

These cells are activated by different molecules to ‘conventional’ T cells, are able to mount a rapid immune response and have the ability to regulate a variety of other immune cells. A range of different diseases are associated with these cells and my current findings indicate that the balance of MAIT cells is disrupted in people with LCH. But if we can prime the MAIT cells for a specific immune response, or increase their numbers in the laboratory and then return them to patients, we could potentially resolve LCH.

However because LCH is relativity rare, limited funding is available for ongoing research and there is also a lack of patient samples to study to draw statistically significant conclusions. So there is a pressing need to work with other world-leading research organisations.

How would you use the travel grant should you receive it?
There is one conference each year – the Annual Histiocyte Society Meeting - where clinicians and researchers can meet and learn from each other. I would use the travel grant to attend the October 2018 conference to - present data, learn what other researchers are doing, gain access to unpublished data and to make connections with other researchers with the hope to secure access to patient samples from other countries.

I would also take the opportunity to visit nearby laboratories to share data and to champion the work of the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute and Federation University Australia. As LCH is a niche research field, international collaboration is extremely important to progress our understanding of this rare disease. By extending my network I hope to make an important contribution to LCH and cancer immunology research.

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