Liposome vaccine strategy 

Professor Ranjeny Thomas and her team have developed and patented a liposome vaccine strategy to induce antigen-specific tolerance in Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA).

Professor Ranjeny Thomas from The University of Queensland on Vimeo.

Head Researcher Professor Ranjeny Thomas
Team Members

Dr Brendan O’Sullivan
Dr Nigel Davies
Dr Srinivas Mutalik
Dr Soi Law
Dr Hanno Nel
Dr Helen Benham
Mr Suman Yekollu
Dr Bijun Zen
Ms Helen Roberts

Body Part Joints
Equipment Used Vaccine
Process Used Treating the cause of Rheumatoid Arthritis and not the symptoms
Research Areas Genomics, Immunotherapies
Disease Autoimmune – Rheumatoid Arthritis
Commercial Partnerships Jansen-Biotech and Dendright 
Institutions UQDI, SoM, UQ-MRI, PAH

The social and economic burdens of RA are massive: it affects ~1% of adults worldwide, reducing survival by an average of 10 years, and costs up to $100,000 per patient annually.

Furthermore, ~40% of the RA population remains undiagnosed, with intermittent or mild symptoms in the earliest disease stages. Previous studies have shown that the HLA-class II genes underlie the major genetic susceptibility, with the development of autoimmunity marked by the appearance of autoantibodies specifically directed against citrullinated antigens (known as anti-citrullinated peptide antibodies, ACPA).

These ACPA precede expression of clinical symptoms and can be used to prospectively identify individuals at greatest risk. Clinical subtypes of RA are now identified by the presence (seropositive) or absence (seronegative) of ACPA and rheumatoid factor autoantibodies. Seropositivity is associated with carriage of HLA-DRB1 RA-susceptibility genes and a more severe outcome. The innovation associated with Professor Thomas’ research is that it is the first to specifically target ACPA+ patients carrying HLA-DRB1 RA-susceptibility gene variants, each identifiable with existing tests. The translational impact is its use with patients with recent-onset ACPA+ RA and potentially to at-risk individuals as prevention.

In 2012, Professor Thomas received seed funding for her innovative technology targeting dendritic cells with liposomes encapsulating curcumin and autoantigen. She completed a proof-of-concept clinical trial of autologous modified dendritic cells delivering citrullinated peptide antigen to ACPA+ RA patients carrying HLA-DRB1 susceptibility alleles (presented in plenary talks at American College of Rheumatology meeting, manuscript under review).

Professor Thomas founded “Dendright” to commercialise the liposome technology, and commenced a collaborative partnership (and option to licence) with Janssen-Biotech, the US pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson in 2013. “Dendright’s” technology will be tested in early-phase clinical trials in RA within 2 years. Professor Thomas’ studies to characterise T-cells recognising autoantigenic peptides presented by susceptibility HLA-DR molecules, are a major advance and stimulus to the field.

These studies have important ramifications for the design of biomarkers to accompany clinical trials of novel immunotherapies, like the “Dendright” technology. Her research has catalysed new collaborations across TRI and UQ, for example, with Kristen Radford (dendritic cells, UQ-MRI) and Katharine Irvine (curcumin targeting in liver disease, SoM). Professor Thomas’ innovative achievements have also secured new partnerships with international science leaders and the pharmaceutical industry, thereby expanding UQ’s (and Australia’s) research capacity and competitiveness in this area. 

Although current RA treatments reduce inflammation, they do not cure the immune dysfunction causing disease, there are side-effects, efficacy is limited, and disease cannot be prevented in at-risk individuals. Effective tolerance-inducing immunotherapies like the “Dendright” technology are considered the “Holy Grail”, and promise greater specificity, lower toxicity, and a longer-term solution to controlling and preventing autoimmune diseases. Furthermore, the principles underpinning this technology in RA should be applicable to other autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes and celiac disease, given their similarities in terms of the contribution by HLA-class II molecules and peptide.

Translational Research - Milestone T3

Professor Thomas undertook ‘proof of concept’ clinical trials to develop the liposome technology.  She then founded “Dendright” to commercialise the liposome technology, and commenced a collaborative partnership (and option to licence) with Janssen-Biotech, the US pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson in 2013. Dendright has commenced first-in-human dosing of its product candidate, DEN-181 in a Phase 1b clinical trial

> For further information on volunteering for or participating in clinical research, if you or a relative have rheumatoid arthritis, contact [email protected]

> For further information on commercial vaccine development for rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and other autoimmune diseases, and opportunities for partnering, contact Helen Roberts, CEO Dendright.

> For information about donating to this project email Thea Kleiber, deputy director of advancement, UQDI.  

Professor Ranjeny Thomas