Weaponising Memory Natural Killer Cells, the Unsung Heroes, to Combat Chronic Hepatitis B Infection

Hi All

My name is Dishen Corey Chen. I’m a PhD student under the guidance of Professor Golo Ahlenstiel and Dr Scott Read at Western Sydney University. My research projects primarily focus on the interaction between the immune system and Hepatitis B Virus (HBV). As we all know, the immune system plays an essential role in our combat against HBV infection, as well as against any type of infection in general.

Consider the HBV vaccine as an example. It utilizes what is believed to be the most distinctive component of HBV, the HBV surface antigen, to “train” the immune system without inducing the actual infection. For a considerable period, T and B cells were thought to be the only “soldiers” trained in this process. In fact, the antibodies targeting the surface, core and E antigens are released by B cells as a result of immune system training via HBV vaccination and infection.

Natural Killer (NK) cells, on the other hand, combat infection by eliminating cells considered “unhealthy”. Cells infected with HBV or any other pathogens fall under this “unhealthy” category. In simpler terms, NK cells do not recognize HBV antigens. They eliminate their targets in a less specific manner. Or at least, that’s what was previously believed.

Three years ago, our research group identified a unique subset of NK cells that can recognize HBV antigens. These cells can be trained through HBV vaccination and infection to maintain long-term memory responses against the virus. Our next objective is to comprehend how these memory NK cells are trained. Who trains them? After training, how do they recognize the HBV antigens?

We believe that, by answering these questions, we can potentially train and generate these highly efficient NK cell “soldiers” under laboratory conditions. This development could then be applied in clinical settings as cell therapy to combat HBV infection, thereby assisting patients to achieve HBV functional clearance more effectively.

Fighting HBV infection indeed feels like a lifelong war, at least until a cure is developed. However, there is no reason to fear, and we certainly should not retreat. I truly believe that with the aid of properly trained and capable soldiers such as the memory NK cells, T cells and B cells, who have rescued mankind from numerous notorious pathogens and diseases, we can undoubtedly triumph in this battle once and for all!