Dr James O’Connor acknowledges that without the support of his supervisor, Associate Professor Ian Cockburn and the ANU Medical School, the award of his PhD while also undertaking the Doctor of Medicine and Surgery may not have occurred.
“It has taken a lot of mental reserve to complete my PhD. Burnout was a huge problem for me, trying to juggle medical school and research commitments.”
“The running to lectures in between experiments or a full day at the Canberra Hospital followed by late evening microscope bookings has aged me,” Dr O’Connor half jokes.
The findings from his initial PhD work in 2020, which investigated protective antibodies that could lead to a long-lasting malaria vaccine, have assisted in progressing a separate malaria vaccine study from phase 1 to phase 2 clinical trials.
For the latter part of his research project, Dr O’Connor and the team in the Malarial Immunology Lab looked at 3D structures of the liver sinusoid (a type of capillary) to understand how T-cells behave in locating and eradicating a parasite.
“What we demonstrated is that the anatomy of the liver forces T-cells to work smarter not harder, making them more efficient at locating and eradicating a parasite, which can be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
“The T-cells cover more area in a shorter period of time and don’t backtrack on areas they’ve already surveyed increasing the likelihood of finding the parasite before it becomes blood stage and infects red blood cells.”
“We also looked at what helps T-cells become resident in the liver. We know that T-cells are able to generate sterilising immunity to malaria but the T-cells need to be in the liver before the parasite becomes blood stage malaria.”
“We found that LFA-1 (a ‘velcro-like’ molecule) is the dominant molecule for homing T-cells to the liver, whilst modified glycoproteins help T-cell homing to the spleen. These findings indicate that T-cells can be driven to the liver and remain there, ready to identify and kill malaria parasites before they become deadly. A vaccine that can elicit this response would be highly effective.”
Dr O’Connor said that undertaking a conjoint Phd/MChd has helped him appreciate how researchers shape healthcare. His current plan is to become a researcher/clinician utilising his experience in immunology to help provide and improve immunotherapies in cancers and rheumatological conditions.
As for his PhD graduation ceremony Dr O’Connor is disappointed that his lab mates, with whom he has spent the greater part of the last four years, won’t be there to celebrate with him.
“We made plans to all graduate together but when COVID stopped the graduations this year, those plans were abandoned as many of my friends had to travel overseas to start their postdocs.”
All is not lost, as he is due to graduate alongside his cohort from the Doctor of Medicine and Surgery program in December 2022, when he will no doubt make up for this year’s lost opportunity to celebrate with friends.