Dr. Jun Wang
Inflammation, Infection & Immunity
Finding the connections:
As she was fine-tuning a promising potential Chlamydia vaccine, Dr. Jun Wang came across a double-edged immune mechanism with implications for cancer. Known as the interleukin-17 (IL-17) pathway, this mechanism protects us from bacteria like Chlamydia, yet it also plays a role in the development of cancer.
“When it kicks in at the wrong time with the wrong amount, IL-17 causes chronic inflammation, which in turn sets the stage for cancer,” explains Dr. Wang, an assistant professor in the departments of Microbiology & Immunology and Pediatrics at Dalhousie Medical School and a scientist at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology at the IWK Health Centre. She is now exploring the role of IL-17 in breast cancer and melanoma and as a biomarker of thyroid cancer. “When IL-17 is high, tumours are much bigger, but if you block IL-17, tumours are smaller… this points to its possible use as an immune therapy for cancer.”
While pursuing new approaches to cancer, Dr. Wang is continuing to develop her Chlamydia vaccine. “Chlamydia is sharply on the rise in the Maritimes, with potentially serious consequences,” she says. “It can go undiagnosed a long time, leading to pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.” If a woman contracts Chlamydia during pregnancy, it can pass to the baby during birth, causing pneumonia or serious eye infections.
As Dr. Wang points out, Chlamydia infection also increases a person’s risk of contracting HIV by about 20 fold. HIV infection, in turn, dramatically increases the risk of tuberculosis (TB). “About 80 per cent of HIV-positive people also have TB,” she notes, adding that, “the TB vaccine that used to be given in Canada has proven to be ineffective, and the disease is re-emerging as a growing threat worldwide.” In response, Dr. Wang has developed a TB vaccine. This is now being tested in clinical trials in China, where the TB burden is very high.