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Infectious diseases researcher joins outstanding women on honour roll  

12 October 2023
Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
Wai-Hong Tham sitting at a desk with a computer in the background

Professor Wai-Hong Tham has been inducted to the 2023 Victorian Honour Roll of Women as a ‘Change Agent’ in recognition of her discoveries in malaria and infectious diseases research.

The Victorian Honour Roll of Women celebrates and acknowledges the outstanding contributions made by Victorian women, with Change Agents recognised for making enduring commitments to their fields that have brought about significant and lasting change.

At a glance
Prof Wai-Hong Tham has been included in the 2023 Victorian Honour Roll of Women, recognised as a Change Agent.
A world-leading researcher in malaria and infectious diseases, her work has transformed our understanding of the two most deadly malaria parasites that infect humans.
Prof Tham’s fundamental discoveries have spawned an entirely new field of research and provided a blueprint for the design of new drugs and vaccines.

Prof Tham, laboratory head at WEHI and co-Chair of the WEHI Biologics Initiative, said she was delighted to join the inspiring Victorian women recognised on the honour roll.

“Infectious diseases have shaped and influenced life on earth, and it has been incredibly rewarding to contribute to knowledge on how malaria parasites infect humans that may pave the way for new interventions or diagnostics,” she said.

Understanding malaria infections 

Malaria is one of the world’s deadliest parasitic diseases, infecting over 200 million people annually.

Prof Tham’s work has transformed our understanding of how the two most deadly malaria parasites, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax infect humans.

Her fundamental discoveries identified and characterised the key players that exist at the interface between malaria parasites and human cells, examining the molecular interactions that underpin immune regulation and blood cell entry.

Prof Tham’s molecular and structural descriptions of how the parasites infect blood cells provide a blueprint for the design of new drugs and vaccines.

Her work on P. vivax has significantly advanced our understanding of how it enters blood cells, identified a new vaccine candidate and led to the subsequent development of a novel diagnostic program to detect P. vivax infections.

Plasmodium vivax is particularly challenging to work with and remains one of the main hurdles to complete malaria elimination,” Prof Tham said.

“It has been a real privilege to work with an incredible team of parasitologists, structural biologists, immuno-epidemiologists and our partners in malaria endemic regions to understand P. vivax biology.”

Antibodies against infectious diseases

Monoclonal antibodies are powerful therapeutics for a variety of human diseases, ranging from cancer, inflammatory and infectious diseases.

These therapeutics emerged as one of the few proven strategies to prevent COVID-19 and treat patients with early infection, to prevent severe disease and reduce hospitalisations.

In 2020, with support from the Victorian Government and Medical Research Future Fund, Prof Tham led a strategic partnership to develop antibody cocktails against COVID-19, bringing together Australia’s foremost academic and industry leaders in infectious diseases and antibody therapeutics.

She is co-chair of the WEHI Biologics Initiative and established the WEHI Nanobody Platform, the first nanobody platform in Australia using immunised alpacas to facilitate rapid generation of monoclonal antibodies.

Prof Tham is also the co-founder of Centre for Biologic Therapies – a research-industry partnership with CSL to generate high-quality and clinic-ready therapeutic antibodies against novel targets in human disease.

She has been widely recognised for her research, receiving numerous awards including the 2023 Bancroft-Mackerras Medal for Excellence, the 2020 International Award Biochemical Society, the Howard Hughes-Wellcome Trust International Research Scholar Award and 2017 David Syme Research Prize.

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