First responders in our skin and gut revealed: Prof Laura Mackay

Offering new ways to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases

A decade ago, University of Melbourne’s Professor Laura Mackay discovered the “first responders” of our immune system, a unique population of T cells based in our skin, gut and other barrier tissues.

Now she’s working to super-charge their protective power to clear infections and fight cancer, and to calm them down to avoid skin autoimmune disease.

Professor Mackay, a Fellow of the Academy, leads the Immunology theme at the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne.

She will receive the Jian Zhou Medal from the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences together with Sydney’s Professor David Ziegler who is trialling treatments for the fatal brain stem tumour DIPG, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. And he’s driving the development of the national Zero Childhood Cancer (ZERO) project – to give every child with cancer the best chance of an effective treatment.

The medal is named in honour of Professor Jian Zhou who coinvented the cervical cancer vaccine with Professor Ian Frazer. It is awarded annually by the Academy of Health and Medical Sciences for impact in translational medical research.

Researchers have long set their sights on reprogramming specific T cells in the blood as a possible saviour for many hard-to-treat diseases. Laura discovered that they were looking in the wrong place.

In a series of landmark studies, she found that a unique type of T cell exists in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues. She showed that these T cells are first responders, mounting a fast and effective immune response at the specific site of the infection.

“It was a real shift in thinking, because for a long time people thought that the T cells they were finding in tissues were just passers-by caught up in tissues,” Laura says.

“On comparing T cells in the blood versus T cells in tissues, we found that the genes and signals that control the survival of T cells in tissues is different, and we found that these T cells in tissues were more protective against infection and tumours.”

Today, thousands of researchers around the world are studying these Tissue-Resident Memory T cells (TRM cells). Laura and her team are now developing new strategies to boost the number of TRM cells and super-charge their protective power to clear infections and diseases such as breast cancer and melanoma.

“We’re also working on the other side of the coin, where these T cells can go rogue, leading to skin autoimmune conditions such as vitiligo, alopecia and psoriasis,” she says.

Jian Zhou Medal selection committee chair Professor Ian Frazer AC says, “Professor Mackay’s discovery of Tissue-Resident Memory T cells illustrates the importance of fundamental research in advancing medicine.”

AAHMS launched the Jian Zhou Medal in 2020 to recognise rising stars in Australian health and medical science. The award is made possible by a generous donation from the Frazer Family Foundation and the medal is designed and minted by the Royal Australian Mint.

Nominations for the 2023 medal will open in October this year.

Media: AAHMS Communication Manager Katie Rowney, [email protected], 07 3102 7212, 0419 787 551

Niall Byrne, [email protected], 0417 131 977

Read about the Jian Zhou Medal at

Media kit and video at

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