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Complexities of human disease targeted with $16 million in funding

Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, Australia, have received more than $16 million in Australian Government funding to pursue research into cancer, malaria, rheumatoid arthritis and the immune system, it was announced today.

The funding was announced by federal health minister Tanya Plibersek and will be distributed through the National Health and Medical Research Council. Walter and Eliza Hall Institute scientists were awarded two program grants, worth more than $15 million over five years, two development grants, worth more than $1.3 million; and three PhD scholarships.

The program grants will:

  • support researchers from the Bioinformatics division as they seek to develop new methods for analysing the massive, complex data sets that are generated by biomedical researchers; and
  • help researchers from the Immunology and Molecular Immunology divisions understand how white blood cells make the decisions that influence the strength, type, and longevity of the immunity created when the body encounters a foreign invader.

Professor Phil Hodgkin, who is leading the immunology research program, said it would focus on the adaptive immune response and the role of B cells and T cells within that response.

"The adaptive immune system is proving one of the most compelling and fascinating in the body," Professor Hodgkin said. "This system underlies our primary defense against acute infection and mediates long-term immunity by generating memory and long-lived effector cells. It is notorious for its complexity.

"Many diseases are associated with dysregulation of the adaptive immune system, including autoimmune conditions, cancer, allergies and immuno-deficiencies. A better understanding of this system would clearly bring health benefits so we will be examining B cell and T cell biology at three levels: the molecular, the cellular, and the whole animal; in the hope of delivering these benefits."

The development grants awarded to the institute will support Dr Chris Burns, who is trying to develop new treatments for rheumatoid arthritis; and Dr Krystal Evans, who is working to develop a new vaccine against the blood stage of the malaria parasite.

Dr Evans said it was estimated that around 3.5 billion people, approximately half of the world's population, live at risk of malaria infection. "There is currently a strong commitment to eliminate malaria in the 21st century. However, it is unlikely that this ambitious goal will be achieved without an effective vaccine," Dr Evans said. "As with smallpox and polio, we believe that a live attenuated vaccine would represent an invaluable tool for malaria elimination."

Dr Evans plans to manufacture a live genetically attenuated parasite blood-stage malaria vaccine, and use it in clinical trials to determine the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.

Contact: Penny Fannin
Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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