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Professor Rod Dunbar

7 March 2011

The Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre is Professor Rod Dunbar.  His main research specialty is human cellular immunology, especially the development of new approaches to the immune therapy of cancer.  Recent work has extended to mesenchymal stem cell biology, in particular the characterisation of mesenchymal cells in human tissues.

Professor Dunbar holds a medical degree (MBChB) and a PhD from the University of Otago.  He spent 6 years as a post-doctoral research fellow in human immunology at the University of Oxford, largely at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Key achievements in Oxford were the first studies of human cancer tissue using tetrameric MHC class I complexes (“tetramers”), the first direct cloning of human Cytotoxic T Lymphocytes (CTL) from human blood and cancer tissue, and cloning of the first CTL recognising the cancer-testis antigen, NY-ESO-1.  The latter work led to the development of the “1G4” T cell receptor, a successful therapeutic agent in melanoma and synovial sarcoma. 

In 2002 Professor Dunbar returned to NZ under a Wellcome Trust International Senior Research Fellowship, and established human cellular immunology as a research discipline at the University of Auckland.  In 2008 he was appointed the Director of the Maurice Wilkins Centre, and since 2009 he has also co-directed (with Professor Bill Denny) a programme within the University of Auckland to accelerate its research related to human therapeutics (the Biopharma Thematic Research Initiative).


Current projects in his lab include:

•  Development of self-adjuvanting synthetic long peptide vaccines to stimulate human T cells (collaboration with Prof Margaret Brimble’s group, University of Auckland) – see latest publications by Wright et al.

•  3D mapping and modelling of lymph node microanatomy (collaboration with Dr Gib Bogle, Dr Anthony Phillips, Dr Greg Sands, & A/Prof Ian LeGrice, University of Auckland) – recently presented to a plenary session at the 2013 Australasian Society for Immunology conference

•  Imaging the microenvironment of tumour cells in human lymph nodes (collaboration with Prof Richard Scolyer, Melanoma Institute of Australia, and Dr Leanne Berkahn, Auckland District Health Board) – recently presented to a plenary session at the 2013 Australasian Society for Immunology conference 

•  Characterisation of mesenchymal stem cell populations in human tissues – see latest publication by Feisst et al.

Latest publications:

1. Wright TH, Brooks AES, Didsbury AJ, McIntosh JD, Williams GM, Harris PWR, Dunbar PR, Brimble MA (2013) Direct peptide lipidation via thiol-ene coupling allows rapid synthesis and evaluation of self-adjuvanting vaccine candidates. Angewandte Chemie 52(40):10616-9

2. Wright TH, Brooks AES, Didsbury AJ, McIntosh JD, Burkert K, Williams GM, Dunbar PR, Brimble MA (2013) An improved method for the synthesis of TLR2-agonistic lipopeptide via click chemistry. SYNLETT 24(14): 1835-1841

3. Feisst V, Brooks AES, Chen CJJ, Dunbar PR (2014) Characterisation of Mesenchymal Progenitor Cell populations directly derived from human dermis. Stem Cells & Development in press.

For a full list of publications see:


Recent data:

Dunbar Profile Image

Image 1: The image on the left is a 2D projection of a 1 billion voxel 3D dataset that comprehensively images the microvascular network in a murine lymph node at 1µm resolution. It was generated by MWC PhD student Inken Kelch, using a unique extended volume confocal microscopy platform developed by A/Prof Ian LeGrice and colleagues at the University of Auckland ( On the right hand side, the image data has been processed into a computer model, using algorithms developed by Dr Gib Bogle, and the vascular network has been revisualised in a colour spectrum representing vessel diameters (large vessels in red descending to capillaries in dark blue).