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 antimalarial drugs.
Professor Cowman, who is head of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute’s Infection and Immunity division, was one of 13 researchers who received HHMI grants of $100,000 per year for five years. The HHMI Senior International Research Scholar awards support outstanding biomedical scientists working outside the United States who have made significant contributions to fundamental research in the biological sciences.
Professor Cowman said he was honoured to receive the award. “It is pleasing to have our research recognised globally for the contribution it has made to the field,” Professor Cowman said. “I have had the great fortune to have my research supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for 20 years now, and I’m very grateful to them for their ongoing support.”
Malaria caused by Plasmodium falciparum is one of the most serious and widespread parasitic disease of humans. Each year, several hundred million people become infected with up to one million deaths.
Professor Cowman heads a laboratory that focuses on how the malaria parasite invades human red blood cells and develops in this protected environment so that it can hide from the host immune response. “Our ultimate goal is to understand how the malaria parasite infects humans and causes disease and to use these insights to develop new antimalarial therapies,” Professor Cowman said. “Red blood cell invasion is an essential step in survival of the malaria parasite, so is a point in the parasite lifecycle that is vulnerable to immune attack and drug interventions.”
Professor Cowman and his colleagues are progressing a ‘multi-component subunit’ vaccine into clinical development. The vaccine is made up of three proteins the team identified as being critical for the function of the parasite. They are also developing the first potential malaria vaccine that uses a whole, genetically modified malaria parasite to protect against infection.
Professor Cowman has received many awards for his work on Plasmodium falciparum, including the 1993 Gottschalk Medal for Medical Science and Biology, the 1994 Boehringer-Mannheim Medal, the 2001 Royal Society of Victoria Research Medal, the Centenary Medal from the Governor-General of Australia, and has been elected as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and a Fellow of the Royal Society (United Kingdom).
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