Walking a glass bridge toward discovery

Immunologist Anne La Flamme’s research at the University's Malaghan Institute looks at new treatments for Multiple Sclerosis—from antipsychotics to worms.

Anne La Flamme, Professor in Immunology and Cell Biology

When Victoria University of Wellington immunologist Professor Anne La Flamme says innovative scientific discoveries are usually the result of researchers embracing the unexpected, she could equally be talking about the course of her career.

Scientists need to be open to change and opportunity, says American-born Professor La Flamme, who is in the University’s School of Biological Sciences and heads the multiple sclerosis (MS) programme at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research on the University’s Kelburn campus.

“I always find it funny when someone says, ‘I’m going to do this, this, this.’ I go, ‘Okay. It’s a good plan.’”

Professor La Flamme’s plan as a teenager was to go into graphic design or another of the arts. When she did a Bachelor’s degree in life sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology instead, it was to make her a better candidate for volunteering in the Peace Corps in Africa. She had no intention of doing postgraduate study but almost four years in Cameroon got her hooked on wanting to help fight the tropical diseases she had encountered. So she enrolled in a PhD in immunoparasitology at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Marriage to a New Zealander brought Professor La Flamme to Wellington. But what about the switch from tropical diseases to MS, a chronic inflammatory disease of the central nervous system causing nerve degeneration that can lead to impaired vision and coordination and eventual paralysis?

While researching at Cornell University, Professor La Flamme became fascinated by how the immune system would modify itself to accommodate chronic parasites. She then wanted to know how it might deal with two things at once: a parasite and a non-infectious disease.

“So at Victoria University of Wellington I started a project to try to understand what would happen if you had a worm infection, because a lot of worms you can’t get rid of, so the immune system has to ‘accept’ the worm and to do that has to tone itself down.

“I was interested in what would happen with MS. Because MS we knew at that point is driven by the immune system. We [at the University] became the first group to show a live worm infection would reduce the incidence and severity of MS in an animal model.”

Professor La Flamme did not pursue the worm angle further—although scientists in other countries have— but did pursue research into MS.

She is currently leading a clinical trial that typifies the element of chance that can be involved in science.

The trial is testing antipsychotic medications clozapine and risperidone on people with secondary progressive MS, which affects over a third of MS sufferers and for which there is currently no effective treatment.

Clozapine and risperidone are used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism. Studies show they are also able to tone down the immune system in the brain.

“It all started as a conversation between myself and Associate Professor Bronwen Connor at the University of Auckland,” says Professor La Flamme. “She works in neurogenesis, neuron repair, stem cells—a very different field from me. We were talking one day and for some reason we ended up talking about the atypical antipsychotics and neuroinflammation and one thing led to another and I said, ‘Ooh, we’ve got to try that. That might work.’”

The research Professor La Flamme and her team have been doing with the New Zealand medical biotechnology company Innate Immunotherapeutics Ltd on another potential treatment, MIS416, also shows science following a jagged path.

MIS416 is a microparticle originally developed by Innate Immunotherapeutics to enhance the body's immune response to vaccines.

“But then through their data and what they had been seeing of it being used they thought it might be useful in MS. We believe it’s activating very specific types of immune cells. Most people think in MS the last thing you want is to activate the immune system, so this is counterintuitive—it goes against everything you would think. However, our research is suggesting what it’s activating is not the arm of the system causing problems but the natural repair mechanisms. Because if you think about it, suppose you get a cut and are exposed to bacteria that get into that cut: your immune system has to fight the bacteria but it also has to initiate a repair process. So we think that’s what MIS416 is initiating—a repair process.

“It would not be what you would logically do. It took this sidestep. And really it was through brilliant minds—and that was not my mind—that thought, ‘Oh, actually that might work in this situation’ and then having frankly the balls to try it, because it did go against a lot of what people were thinking.

“That’s where the innovations come. It’s the exciting part. You always have to be open for that. And try to develop those opportunities. It’s like walking on a glass bridge. You have to have faith there’s an actual bridge covering the chasm.”

Science today is very different from the silo-ed world Professor La Flamme entered as an undergraduate in the 1980s.

Now collaboration is a given—not only with others in your faculty or university but in universities and other organisations elsewhere in the country and the world.

As a teenager into art, she was “more interested in the creative”, she says.

“Not understanding that science is incredibly creative. Most people think it’s all logic, it’s all facts. Oh no. Those facts are all little building blocks and then you have to somehow put them together and create something.”