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Top Australian malaria researcher elected Fellow of the Royal Society

Internationally recognised malaria researcher Professor Alan Cowman from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia, has been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, the UK's peak academy promoting excellence in science.

Professor Cowman is one of 44 new fellows inducted to the Royal Society in 2011, including four Australians. Fellows are nominated and selected through a peer review process on the basis of excellence in science.

Professor Cowman has had a major impact on infectious disease research in the field of malaria. He has spent the past 30 years studying the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, which causes the most deadly form of malaria in humans. The research has led to a better understanding of how the malaria parasite evades detection by the human immune system and how it becomes resistant to anti-malarial drugs.

Professor Cowman said he was deeply honoured to receive the nomination and be elected to the society. "It is very pleasing to receive the award because it recognises the quality and impact of our research in malaria, an area in which Australia makes a major contribution," he said. "I would like to thank and acknowledge my mentors and importantly the colleagues with whom I have worked and collaborated over the years to make our work successful. I am indebted to the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for its continuing support of our research which has been so important to our success."

Each year almost 250 million people contract malaria, and one million people, mostly children, die from the disease. "Malaria presents an enormous health burden but also has a major impact on social and economic development in countries where the disease is endemic," Professor Cowman said. "New therapies are urgently needed."

Professor Cowman has made major contributions to understanding drug resistance, elucidating the mechanism of resistance to some of the most important antimalarial drugs. This has had implications for the development of new antimalarial treatments and opened the way for surveillance of the geographic spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria.

His research has revealed significant detail about how the P. falciparum malaria parasite invades and remodels human red blood cells to multiply and establish infection while escaping the immune responses deployed against it. Collectively, this knowledge is being used to identify vaccine and drug candidates against malaria.

Professor Cowman and his colleagues have received funding from PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) to progress a 'multi-component subunit' vaccine into clinical development; the vaccine is made up of three proteins they identified as being critical for the function of the parasite. The research has also led Professor Cowman and his colleagues to develop the first potential malaria vaccine that uses a whole, genetically modified malaria parasite to protect against infection. The malaria vaccine began human Phase I trials in 2010, with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and in collaboration with the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

Professor Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, said he was pleased to see Professor Cowman's contribution to the field of malaria recognised by the society. "Professor Cowman has developed tools and knowledge that have greatly increased understanding of the malaria parasite and how it causes disease in humans. We are now at the stage of seeing those critical discoveries pave the way for new vaccines and treatments for the prevention of malaria, which could have an enormous impact on the three billion people at-risk of contracting malaria across the globe," he said.

Fellow Australians Professor Ian Frazer, Professor Mark Randolph and Dr Patrick Tam were also honoured with a Royal Society Fellowship this year. The Royal Society was established in 1660, and fellows include such prominent scientists and mathematicians as Sir Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton. Walter and Eliza Hall alumni Sir Macfarlane Burnet, Sir Gus Nossal and Professor Jacques Miller as well as current faculty Professor Don Metcalf, Professor Suzanne Cory and Professor Jerry Adams are all Royal Society Fellows.


Contact: Liz Williams
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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