Dr. Brent Johnston

Dr. Brent Johnston

Dr. Brent Johnston

Inflammation, Infection & Immunity, Molly Appeal

Two sides of the immunity coin:
Dr. Brent Johnston aims to tone down immune reactions in rheumatoid arthritis, ramp them up against cancer

Dr. Brent Johnson is working to understand how the immune system functions and how it can be manipulated to alter disease outcomes. Specifically, his laboratory wants to identify mechanisms that can be targeted to dampen the immune reactions that drive joint inflammation and damage in rheumatoid arthritis or stimulated to enhance immune recognition and killing of tumour cells in cancer patients. "We must find ways to both ramp up and tone down the immune response to reduce sickness and disability," says Dr. Johnston, Professor in the Departments of Microbiology & Immunology, Pediatrics, and Pathology in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie Medical School.

Dr. Johnston and his team are studying how molecules called chemokines activate immune cells and direct them to specific tissues. "If we can identify what is making immune cells go to the joints, we could devise strategies to block them," he notes. "Conversely, chemokines could be used to enhance recruitment of immune cells into tumours."

Dr. Johnston's laboratory is also studying the contribution of immune cells called natural killer T (NKT) cells in the development of rheumatoid arthritis, while also learning how to mobilize these powerful cells in the fight against cancer. "Once activated, NKT cells can set off an aggressive immune response against tumour cells,” Dr. Johnston says. “The challenge then is to direct that response to the location of the primary tumour.” To enhance the anti-tumour effects of NKT cells, Dr. Johnston's group is working to combine NKT cell activation with other therapies, including traditional chemotherapies and viruses that specifically infect cancer cells. Dr. Johnston's group has shown that these combined therapies work together to better stimulate the immune system and enhance targeting of immune cells to the tumour to increase survival.

With the spohisticated cell-analysis equipment to be purchased with proceeds of Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation's 2018-19 Fall Molly Appeal, Dr. Johnston and his team will be able to progress much more quickly in their efforts to understand how to dampen and enhance immunological reactions in reponse to variable diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and cancer. The results of their efforts will help with the development of specifically targeted treatments.

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