Preclinical development of vaccines that rejuvenate the ageing immune system

Māori Kia Niwha Leader Fellow
DR THERESA PANKHURST

Theresa Pankhurst ID v2
Principal Investigator
Dr Theresa Pankhurst (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou)
Malaghan Institute of Medical Research
Public Contact
Te Niwha
teniwhacomms@otago.ac.nz
Project Timeframe/Status
-
In Process

Whakarāpopoto Rangahau Summary of Research

Priority Theme: Therapeutics
Discipline: Immunology

The immune system protects people throughout their life from infection and disease. Like people, the immune system grows and evolves as it encounters new and familiar infectious organisms but also ages, becoming less efficient and effective. Older immune systems respond less effectively to vaccines, producing fewer protective antibodies and offering less protection from disease. This is one reason older people need more frequent vaccination. Why this happens is only just starting to be understood. 

‘Germinal centres’ are unique immunological structures that form in response to an infectious disease. RNA technology, the ability to package cellular instructions – such as a vaccine or therapeutic agent – in microscopic bubbles and deliver them to cells like a courier service, is revolutionising biomedicine. It may also be the key to boosting ailing germinal centres by targeting the immune cells inside them.  By assisting waning immune cells through targeted RNA technology, it may be possible to sustain germinal centre efficiency – offering the same protection of a younger, stronger immune system.

Dr Theresa Pankhurst is an immunologist who is interested in the fundamental biology behind effective vaccine-mediated immunity and how the immune system can be harnessed to improve vaccine efficacy for future infectious disease threats.

Dr Pankhurst will investigate the germinal centre response to mRNA vaccinations – developed by the Malaghan Institute – and how this changes with age – using expertise and resources established by the Babraham Institute in the United Kingdom.  As part of her one-year targeted Kia Niwha Leader Fellowship project she will also investigate whether encoding mRNA vaccines with specific ingredients might improve the age-related decline of the germinal centre, with the goal to identify new vaccines that better protect older members of our communities from infectious disease.

He Kōtaha Kairangahau Researcher Profile

Dr Theresa Pankhurst ​(Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou)
Principal Investigator
Malaghan Institute of Medical Research

Dr Theresa Pankhurst is an immunologist who is interested in the fundamental biology behind effective vaccine-mediated immunity and how the immune system can be harnessed to improve vaccine efficacy for future infectious disease threats. She graduated her PhD in Biomedical Science in 2021 from Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington, where her research focused on improving mucosal vaccine design against respiratory viruses by targeting lung-resident innate-like T cells as cellular adjuvants. 

Following her PhD she joined the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research’s Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand (VAANZ) – Ohu Kaupare Huaketo, where she was part of the vaccine evaluation team that designed and tested a preclinically efficacious COVID-19 booster vaccine. During this time she became the inaugural recipient of the Te Urungi Churchill College By-Fellowship that supported her to incorporate aspects of Te Ao Māori into her research journey, as well as the opportunity to gain international expertise in vaccine immunology.  

Currently Dr Pankhurst has been seconded to Cambridge’s Babraham Institute as a postdoctoral researcher and by-fellow at University of Cambridge’s Churchill College. Here she is leading a research partnership, weaving together the Malaghan’s RNA technology platform with Babraham’s expertise in ageing immunity, with the goal to develop novel vaccines for Aotearoa NZ that rejuvenate the ageing immune system.  

Project Status

In Process

 

Media Contact 

Te Niwha
teniwhacomms@otago.ac.nz