Melbourne scientists dominate international Howard Hughes Medical Institute awards


Amid tough global competition, Melbourne has again confirmed its position as Australia's pre-eminent biomedical destination by securing almost 20% of the prestigious worldwide medical research awards announced by the US-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Eight Melbourne scientists including six from The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) have today been named HHMI International Research Scholars. Each scientist will receive a five-year research grant of between AUD$466,000.00 and $666,000.00.

Nearly 500 scientists from 62 countries applied for the awards, which were eventually made to 42 scientists in 20 countries including the eight in Melbourne, the only Australian city to receive awards apart from one award shared with Hobart.

The HHMI is awarding a total of AUD$23.3 million worldwide to tackle infectious and parasitic diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, haemorrhagic fevers and anthrax. The objective is to stimulate international efforts to understand the underlying mechanisms of diseases, to help identify potential new drug targets and to develop vaccines.

In Washington, DC, HHMI President, Thomas R. Cech, says, "Through its international program, HHMI is supporting scientists of the highest quality in their home countries. We also bring these international scholars together with each other and with other scientists in the HHMI community to create an international network of scientific excellence."

Malaria expert Professor Alan Cowman, Head of the Infection and Immunity Division at The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, says, "On a world scale, these awards from the HHMI demonstrate the tremendous strength of basic biomedical research in Melbourne and at WEHI in particular. The funds granted will accelerate our search for more effective drugs and vaccines for malaria, which infects and debilitates about 10% of humanity and kills around 2 million people every year."

Melbourne's newly-announced HHMI International Research Scholars:

Professor Alan Cowman; WEHI: to investigate how Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most lethal form of human malaria, invades mature red blood cells. This information will be important in determining the potential of proteins involved in the process as vaccine and drug candidates.

Dr Brendan Crabb; WEHI: to study merozoite surface proteins, the prime targets of immune responses and the leading vaccine candidates for control of the deadly malarial parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. Specifically, his group will use genetic technologies to study the relative importance of specific merozoite antigens.

Professor Simon Foote; WEHI and the Menzies Research Institute, Hobart: to determine how the host defends itself against malaria resistance by infecting genetically similar mice carrying rare mutations and studying the mutations that allow animals to survive infection. This research will yield insights into host response to malaria.

Dr Louis Schofield; WEHI: to study the role of innate immunity and the parasite toxin in susceptibility and resistance to severe malaria. It is hoped that determining the role of the toxin and innate responses in disease, and the role of anti-toxin antibodies and counter-regulatory mechanisms in clinical immunity to malaria, will provide a rational basis for the development of interventions that prevent malaria fatalities.

Dr William Heath; WEHI: to investigate the effects of the interaction between malarial parasites and dendritic (antigen-presenting) cells, which initiate immunity, on the ability of malaria to overcome the efforts of a competent immune system. He will study which specific types of dendritic cells capture malaria and how these immune cells are affected by a fully-fledged infection by Plasmodium falciparum.

Dr Gabrielle Belz; WEHI: to investigate the mechanisms by which antigen presenting cells induce the body to produce elevated numbers of CD8+ memory T cells during acute and persistent viral infections. These memory T cells are vital to long-term protection of the body against subsequent viral infection.

Professor Geoff McFadden; The University of Melbourne: to investigate a tiny and vital organelle, the apicoplast, within the malaria parasite. The aim is to understand how drugs that disrupt the apicoplast work and how the apicoplast is powered.

Associate Professor Alex Andrianopoulos; The University of Melbourne: to investigate the human pathogen Penicillium marneffei, a fungus that can grow in either a unicellular or multicellular form, depending on the temperature surrounding it; and to determine the genes controlling this change of form at the molecular and cellular level.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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