Heng Lab research
About Associate Professor Tracy Heng
Associate Professor Tracy Heng is a Laboratory Head in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences at Monash University. Tracy obtained her PhD at Monash University in 2006, developing strategies to improve immune function in ageing and disease. She undertook postdoctoral training with Profs Harald von Boehmer, Christophe Benoist and Diane Mathis at Harvard Medical School in Boston to establish the Immunological Genome Project (immgen.org), a widely utilised resource for gene expression profiling of immune cells. She returned to Australia in 2009 and was awarded an ARC Postdoctoral (Industry) Fellowship to develop her research in alliance with industry. Tracy is a recipient of the 2015 Young Tall Poppy Science Award (Australian Institute of Policy and Science) and the 2016 Metcalf Prize for Stem Cell Research (National Stem Cell Foundation of Australia). She is currently an NHMRC R.D. Wright Biomedical Career Development Fellow and leads a research program at the Biomedicine Discovery Institute focused on overcoming immunological barriers to stem cell therapies.
1. Improving mesenchymal stromal cell therapy
Mesenchymal stromal cells (MSCs) have shown great potential as a versatile cell therapy product with immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory effects. MSCs are heavily utilised in clinical trials for treating a broad range of disease conditions. However, MSCs become undetectable shortly after injection or infusion and their mechanisms of action remain largely unclear. Our research has identified key immune interactions that underlie the therapeutic effects of MSCs. We seek to discover how the immune system impacts on MSC survival, function and therapeutic efficacy. The findings will have broad implications for the future development of MSC-based therapies.
Figure 1: Immune modifying properties of MSCs.
2. Overcoming age-related defects in immune cell development
The differentiation of haematopoietic stem cells into lymphocytes in the bone marrow and thymus is governed by interactions with non-lymphoid stromal cells. Stromal cell dysregulation with age perturbs immune cell development, causing clinical problems in transplant and cancer settings. Our lab seeks to understand the basis for age-related immune and stromal defects, with a view to treatments that can reverse this process.
Figure 2: Spatial interactions of developing T cells and stromal cells in the thymus.
3. Improving stem cell transplantation outcomes
Haematopoietic stem cell transplantation rebuilds the immune system following treatment for cancers and certain metabolic and autoimmune diseases. Radiation or chemotherapy is required to kill cancer cells and allow the transplanted stem cells to engraft in the bone marrow. In aged recipients, however, reduced ‘take’ of stem cells and thymic degeneration hinder transplantation success and impair immune recovery. We are investigating combination strategies to improve stem cell engraftment and immune competence in aged recipients.
Figure 3: Decline in T cell output and diversity with age.
Visit Dr Heng's Monash research profile to see a full listing of current projects.
We utilise techniques applicable to both stem cell research and immunology, including stem cell isolation, cell/tissue culture, multi-lineage differentiation assays, multi-parameter and imaging flow cytometry, live cell and in vivo imaging, T cell functional assays, cytokine multiplex assays, gene editing, lentiviral transduction, transcriptiomic analyses etc. We use mouse models of disease (see below) and perform various procedures associated with such models.
Asthma/allergic airways inflammation
Haematopoietic stem cell/bone marrow transplantation
Tolerance induction/skin grafting
Thymic atrophy and regeneration
We collaborate with many scientists and research organisations around the world. Click on the map to see the details for each of these collaborators (dive into specific publications and outputs by clicking on the dots).
Student research projects
The Heng Lab offers a variety of Honours, Masters and PhD projects for students interested in joining our group. There are also a number of short term research opportunities available.
Please visit Supervisor Connect to explore the projects currently available in our Lab.