Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researchers Dr Melissa Call, Dr Wai-Hong Tham and Dr Chris Tonkin were three of 209 Australian and international researchers awarded ARC Future Fellowships. They will each receive $700,000 over five years from the program to fund their research into infectious diseases and the immune response to infection.
Dr Wai-Hong Tham from the institute’s Infection and Immunity division will study the mechanisms the malaria parasite uses to evade the human immune system. “Malaria is a significant burden for much of the developing world,” Dr Tham said. “As one of the most widespread parasitic diseases, it has evolved many clever and complex mechanisms to avoid detection and attack by the immune system. The Future Fellowship funding will allow me to study how the Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite exploits the immune response to successfully hide from the immune system while it continues to replicate and infect cells in the body.”
Dr Chris Tonkin, also from the institute’s Infection and Immunity division, is searching for clues to prevent parasites from invading cells and establishing infections. Dr Tonkin studies Toxoplasma, a close relative of the malaria parasite, which is believed to infect a third to a half of the world’s population.
“Toxoplasma gondii is the parasite that causes toxoplasmosis, a disease that causes flu-like symptoms in most otherwise healthy people, but can be particularly dangerous and even fatal for the developing foetus and people who have compromised immune systems due to HIV/AIDS, cancer, organ transplants and other conditions. Furthermore, it causes huge amounts of blindness in some countries,” Dr Tonkin said.
Dr Tonkin said his project would use the latest molecular technology to understand the first steps the Toxoplasma parasite takes to initiate invasion of a host cell.
“By better understanding which proteins are involved in invasion, we hope to identify new drug targets to treat toxoplasmosis and similar parasites, such as malaria.”
Dr Melissa Call from the institute’s Structural Biology division will lead a project focusing on how a key immune cell responds to infection.
“The long-term immune response to an infection requires activation of T cells, an important immune cell that establishes immune ‘memory’ after infection. Almost three decades after discovery of the key receptor responsible for switching T cells on, we still have a poor understanding of how its components are put together and how it transmits information across the cell surface,” Dr Call said.
“My research focuses on the architecture of this receptor to gain a better understanding of how its parts work together. Understanding how immune cells sense their environment is a key step in developing ways to manipulate these cells to treat disease,” Dr Call said.
Professor Doug Hilton said he was happy to see the work of these up-and-coming researchers supported by the ARC Future Fellowships scheme. “Wai-Hong, Chris and Melissa are doing some really interesting research that is producing exciting results, and it’s wonderful to see the government supporting them by committing long-term funding to the research,” he said.
The Future Fellowships scheme began in 2009 and aims to increase opportunities for highly qualified mid-career researchers to continue working in Australia. The federal government committed $151 million this year through the scheme.
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