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28 Aug 2020

Meet the team: Dr Hamish McWilliam’s contribution to immune system research

University of Melbourne Dr Hamish McWilliam, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Doherty Institute

Can you introduce yourself, your background and your role at the Doherty Institute?

I’m a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, based in the laboratory of Professor Jose Villadangos. I lead a team of students, including one Masters and two PhD students.

My PhD was awarded in October 2013, where I focused on vaccine development against the zoonotic parasitic disease, Asian schistosomiasis, which involved sampling infected water buffaloes and collecting snails in the marshlands of rural China, and then identifying potential vaccine candidates back in Melbourne.

Today, I am investigating how our immune system detects and fights bacteria in order to develop new ways to help people overcome bacterial diseases. Our cells produce a protein called MR1, which is akin to a molecular alarm system; this protein captures a by-product of replicating bacteria and uses it to alert white blood cells (T cells). My team is figuring out how this MR1 alarm system works – both at the cellular level and inside these cells at the molecular level.

What initially attracted you to the field of science and immune system research?

Since high school, I became interested in how our body fights infections at the molecular level - buzzwords like ‘biotechnology’ and ‘genetic engineering’ were taking off. After university, I worked on developing vaccines and diagnostic tests for parasites. Then, for my postdoctoral research with Professor Villadangos, I had the opportunity to investigate how the protein MR1 works – despite its importance in bacterial immunity, very little research had focused on it. It turns out that this is an extremely fascinating part of the immune system and has opened up many questions that have real relevance to potential new treatments for bacteria, and also potentially cancer.

How does this contribute to Australia and the field of science?

MR1 is an important aspect of our immune system; it responds to a huge range of bacteria, and it alerts a really abundant set of T cells when bacteria invade our bodies and cause disease. MR1 seems to operate by a unique mechanism, however, and requires novel ways to understand it. There are many great unknowns, including which cells of our body use it to alert the T cells. If we can understand MR1 better, then might manipulate it to help fight bacterial diseases. Also, recent data suggests that it could be used to fight tumours too – other groups have shown that some killer T cells will recognise MR1 on tumour cells, which results in tumour killing. But how MR1 can initiate tumour killing is another fascinating unknown that we might be able to understand.

I have made significant headway into understanding how MR1 works and have developed unique tools with my collaborators that are not available anywhere else in the world to answer fundamental research questions. My hope is that this might be of benefit to develop treatments that help our community; particularly helping the elderly, young and immunocompromised, where bacteria often cause serious disease.

What role do you feel research is currently playing during the COVID-19 pandemic?

While I’m not directly working on COVID-19, I believe that fundamental research has great potential for many applications; any understanding of the immune system has the potential to impact on the fight against emerging viruses and their complications.

What do you see as the biggest scientific challenges in your area of work?

The biggest challenges come from the unique nature of MR1. It’s a protein that captures a small molecule (a metabolite) that only comes from bacteria, and these small molecules are difficult to detect and track with current technologies. We have developed new ways to measure these with collaborators and we will use this to answer key questions.