Unravelling the immune system

Erika Cretney is fascinated by the human immune system. “As we find out more about how it works, it seems to grow in complexity,” she says. “I’m not sure that we’ll ever know everything about it.”

Erika Cretney at work in the lab Photo, credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo
Erika Cretney at work in the lab Photo, credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo

Her interest lies in ferreting out the function of genes, proteins and cell types in the immune system, and identifying the roles they play. And with the help of her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship, she is pursuing a new target: a small group of T cells that play a role in controlling inflammation and auto-immune diseases.

The Fellowship will give her the freedom to promote her new field of study at international conferences and it will help with childcare costs as she balances a full-time research career with the needs of her young son.

T cells play a central role in managing the immune system. There are many different T cells: some promote an immune response; others shut it down; and others cause infected or diseased cells to die.

Erika is examining T regulatory cells, which suppress immune system activity. These cells play an important role in maintaining self-tolerance, making sure that our immune system does not mount a response against our own tissue.

She and her colleagues, under the guidance of Dr Stephen Nutt at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, have identified a subset of T regulatory cells that make a particular protein, known as Blimp-1. Blimp-1 is typically found in the antibody-producing B cells, where it acts on the DNA to turn specific genes off. It is critical for the production of antibodies but its role in T regulatory cells is a mystery.

Erika plans to investigate the Blimp-1 T regulatory cells to get a thorough understanding of their abilities and their role in the body. Ultimately, the knowledge gained from her studies may lead to a better understanding of inflammation, auto-immune diseases, allergy, cancer and the rejection of tissue transplants.

Erika Cretney interview. Download audio interview here (mp3, 1.7MB)

It’s a change from Erika’s previous studies at the Austin Research Institute and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre. There she focused on a protein called TRAIL that inhibits cancer growth and spread. Her work was published in several high impact journals and is well cited. TRAIL is now in clinical trials in the US as a possible cancer treatment.

Following a period of maternity leave last year, Erika decided to change her focus from cancer immunology to the study of T cells. Her L’Oréal Fellowship will help her make the switch by allowing her to return to full-time research, she says, through assistance with the high cost of child care.

“It was really important to me to return to full-time research,” Erika says. “But the nature of immunological research can mean long hours at the bench setting up experiments that run into the night. Fortunately my husband can pick up our son from day care, allowing me to put in the hours I need.”

Erika will also be using the Fellowship to attend a number of conferences and meetings in China and Australia, allowing her to gain valuable international exposure and build her profile in her new field of research.

At the end of the day, though, it’s all about the science.

“I love the excitement of discovery—making research findings that, for a while, no one else in the world knows about except me,” Erika says.

Biographical details


2004 – PhD (Pathology), The University of Melbourne: The role of TNF-related apoptosis-inducing ligand (TRAIL) in immune function

2001 – Bachelor of Science, First Class Honours, The University of Melbourne

Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

2008 – Senior Research Officer (Post-doctoral Scientist), Immunology Division, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

2004- – Scientific Analyst (casual), Genscreen Pty Ltd

2006 – Senior Research Officer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

2006 – NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellow

2006 – Publication of the year award, Immunology and Cell Biology

2005 – Travel scholarship, The Society for Natural Immunity

2005 – National finalist (one of five), New Investigator Award, Australian Society for Immunology

2005 – The Victoria Fellowship

2005 – Commendation for The Premier’s Award for Medical Research

2004 – Research Officer (Postdoctoral Scientist), Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

2004 – Postdoctoral Cancer Research Fellowship, Cancer Council Victoria

2004 – Postgraduate Research Medal for Outstanding Achievement and Scientific Excellence, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

2004 – National finalist in Young Researcher of the Year Award, Cure Cancer Australia Foundation

2004 – Biotechnology Entrepreneurship Product of the Year Award, for ScyAntics’ CD: Visions of Cancer-Unlocking the Mystery, Victorian State Government

2003 – Student travel scholarship, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

2002 – Melbourne Research Scholarship (student PhD living allowance), The University of Melbourne

2002 – Melbourne Abroad Travel Scholarship, The University of Melbourne

2002 – Department of Pathology travel scholarship, The University of Melbourne

2002 – Best poster presentation prize, TNF superfamily conference 2002, San Diego, USA

2001 – Best student question/most interactive student prize, IgV (Immunology Victoria) annual meeting

2000 – Research Assistant, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre

1997-  Research Assistant, Austin Research Institute

1999 – Best conference speaker prize, IgV annual meeting

1997 – Best poster presentation prize, 17th annual Australian Neuroscience Society meeting