Exploring the immune system’s first lines of defence


Professor Francis Carbone

11 June 2010

Professor Francis Carbone is becoming more and more fascinated with immunity as he explores the complex functions of white blood cells and their role in how our body's surfaces protect us from infection.

In this podcast, Professor Carbone, a 2010 NHMRC Australia Fellow, tells Carolyn Norrie about his work studying the immune system’s first lines of defence – the skin, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts - and efforts to understand how we can stop infections at these sites before a microbe gets in and starts to fester within the body.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: Hello my name is Carolyn Norrie. I’m speaking today with Professor Francis (Frank) Carbone of The University of Melbourne. Frank congratulations on your 2010 Australia Fellowship.

Prof Carbone: Thank you.

Interviewer: You’re working in the area of immunology. Can you tell me a bit about the work that you’re doing?

Prof Carbone: Yes, we’re interested in infection and immunity, specifically the way the immune system deals with infection, and we particularly focus on immunity of the body surfaces, skin and things like the gut, gastrointestinal tract and respiratory tract, like the lung. And so we’re interested in understanding how we can stop infection at these body surfaces before the microbe gets in and starts to fester within the body.

Interviewer: Frank many other immunologists look at other areas of the immune system but you’ve chosen this as your area of interest.

Prof Carbone: Look yes we have. It’s becoming more and more fascinating to look at immunity at these sorts of outer reaches, these outer limits, and in many ways it’s a relevant part of the body to study in terms of immunity. It’s the port of entry for a lot of infections. Most of the infections you’re going to get over your lifetime are going to be infections that come in through things that you breathe, or bad things that you eat, or scratches in your skin, so they’re highly relevant.

Interviewer: And how does this work coalesce with other forms of the immune system?

Prof Carbone: Well the immune system is designed really around the white blood cells that you find in the blood that flows throughout your body...that roam your body. What we’re finding is that there are sub-sets of white blood cells that end up in these surfaces where they lodge and persist for quite a long time after they’ve left the blood. And we’re quite interested in what these guys can do and whether we can harness them for good, for protection against infection.

Interviewer: So what benefits do you see your research having?

Prof Carbone: Well once again in terms of protection, if you want to protect the body (as you would in vaccination), if you can generate a system like a protective barrier either throughout the body or in specific sites, for example in the vagina if you were looking at protecting against STD’s, if you can manipulate these immune cells at these local surfaces it would be a pretty powerful way of dealing with infection and it would protect you against microbes that currently we can’t protect against.

Interviewer: And how do you see the Australia Fellowship enabling you to progress your research?

Prof Carbone: Ah, well these are hard systems to work with. It is actually a lot easier to play with immunity in the blood - to look at how your immune levels are in the blood - it’s far more complicated and far more challenging to look at immunity in body tissues. The Australia Fellowship provides us with an opportunity to put together a research team that’s specialised in these sorts of issues. For example, we are going to recruit people who are experts in immunity of the skin, dermatologists, and people with specialist knowledge in immunity in a dermatological sort of a viewpoint. As well as equipment and specialist equipment that we need to look at these type of things.

Interviewer: So the funding you’ve got will enable you to move into new fields?

Prof Carbone: It will of sorts. It will enable us to extend what we do into looking at things in a lot more depth. In sites like the skin we need to interface with specialists and we need to actually recruit specialists to be able to do this in a lot more sophistication than we’ve currently been able to do.

Interviewer: And I understand you started your career as a biophysicist?

Prof Carbone: Ah yes, yes I did. If you know what biophysics is…I started off looking at the structure of proteins and polypeptides, how they evolved and nuances associated with the forming of proteins and just became more and more, let’s call it biological in focus…more and more focused on body systems. That’s how I’ve come to be where I’m at.

Interviewer: It’s interesting too because many of the Australia Fellows we’ve spoken to work in the area of immunology. Do you have a feeling of why this is such a strong field in Australia?

Prof Carbone: It’s actually a very good question, but you know it’s quite well known that Australia has this enormous strength in immunology, and infection and immunity in particular. If you look at the Nobel Prizes that Australia has won. Macfarlane Burnet was a specialist in infection immunity. The people who discovered the link between bacterial infection, helicobacter infection and ulcers were also infection and immunity specialists. Peter Doherty, who’s in our department (The University of Melbourne), is an infection and immunity specialist. I think one of the key things that probably gives us the strength is the critical mass that was built up early on by Burnett and the structure he put in place at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. These critical masses are critically important in giving you that power, that strength that you need to be world class leaders. And again, the Australia Fellowship really just adds to that.

Interviewer: Professor Frank Carbone of Melbourne University thank you for speaking to me today.

Prof Carbone: Thank you very much Carolyn.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia.

You’ll find more information about this and other health and medical research issues on our website, at www.nhmrc.gov.au.