“Killer cells” and new cancer research ties for FECRI

SHARING: FECRI director George Kannourakis and Professor Jan-Inge Henter talk with PhD student Marice Alcantara about her research. Picture: Kate Healy
SHARING: FECRI director George Kannourakis and Professor Jan-Inge Henter talk with PhD student Marice Alcantara about her research. Picture: Kate Healy

WHY do young, strong people suddenly die of the flu? 

The question keeps cropping up across the world, including in Victoria as the state continues to experience one of the worst flu seasons.

Unlocking the puzzles to hyper-responsive immune system and “killer cells” to tackle cases like influenza is what Swedish professor Jan-Inge Henter hopes will translate into treating some cancers, like lymphomas, and inflammatory diseases. 

Professor Jan-Inge Henter has this week been working with scientists and researchers at the Fiona Elsey Cancer Research Institute in Ballarat.

His visit comes under the inaugural Visiting John Turner Professorship, with a primary aim to strengthen a partnertship between FECRI and his research team at leading medical university Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

Their research collaboration focuses on Langerhans Cell Histiocytosis, a rare cancer that damages tissue or causes lesions to form in the body. LCH is most commonly found in young children.

Professor Henter said that even though LCH was a rare disease, like any research, a closer look at it and the immune system response could lead to new cell or treatment discoveries.

This was how Professor Henter’s acclaimed work started in life-threatening hyperinflammation, when the body makes too many activated immune cells or “killer cells”. A clinical specialist in paediatric hematology and oncology, Professor Henter set out with an initial focus on children with sky-rocketing fevers and doctors unable to stop inflammation.

He kept the process clear: define the disease, treat it so survival rates improve and look at the cause. In this he found the need to change the immune system by first calming it down with chemotherapy, then changing it with stems cells.

The method and learnings have been adopted to aggressive glandular fever cases in Asia, serious influenza strains, systemic rheumatic diseases and now moving into some forms of cancer.

Professor Henter said the next steps were repeatedly working to show frontline workers, like doctors in intensive care units, that this treatment works when patients were not responding to the best medicines, even though it might seem a little counter-intuitive

Professor Henter’s visit included a free public lecture and one-on-one discussions with FECRI research staff and students.