Professor Cowman’s research has led to the development of potential vaccines, as well as new antimalarial compounds – the most needed preventative measures for the disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Spanning over 30 years, his distinguished career dedicated to malaria research has enabled a greater understanding of the disease, underpinning the diverse needs of programs working towards elimination and eradication.
Professor Cowman’s groundbreaking research has led to the development of novel therapeutic candidates, including vaccines and new antimalarial compounds.
Over the course of his career, Professor Cowman has published more than 350 malaria research papers with a focus on Plasmodium falciparum – the parasite that causes the most lethal malaria infections in humans.
The genetic knowledge and technology developed from his research led to the first genetically-engineered malaria vaccine, currently in human clinical trials, to stop the parasite from reaching the bloodstream and causing severe disease.
Professor Cowman’s discovery of key mutations in the parasite’s genes that regulate drug resistance enabled the mapping of the emergence and spread of drug resistance.
His work led to a major industry collaboration that created a novel class of compounds, now in preclinical testing, that have proven ‘irresistible’.
Unlike most current antimalarial drugs, these compounds can also block transmission from humans back to the mosquito and also prevent the liver stage of the parasite infection – a crucial step forward in the fight against malaria eradication.
Professor Cowman, who is deputy director at WEHI and a Laboratory Head in the Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division, said the disease remained one of humanity’s greatest challenges.
“Malaria is one of the biggest killers in most resource-poor countries, with the health burden predominantly falling on pregnant women and children under five,” he said.
“With new malaria parasite strains increasingly becoming resistant to available drugs, the development of vaccines and novel antimalarial compounds to block transmission remain the most effective preventative measure against this killer disease.
“I am humbled to receive this award that recognises my team’s commitment and dedication towards discovering effective solutions for a disease that continues to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable communities across the world.”
In 2019, Professor Cowman was appointed a Companion of the Order of Australia, the highest civilian award from the Australian Government, for his service to biological sciences and medical research in the field of molecular parasitology, and scientific education through mentorship.
He has held numerous roles contributing to global health, including with the World Health Organization’s Special Programme for Research Training in Tropical Diseases, where he provided leadership and advice in the areas of malaria control in developing countries.
WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton AO praised Professor Cowman for his pioneering research that has benefited the lives of people worldwide.
“Alan’s commitment to unravelling the mysteries of the P. falciparum parasite marked the birth of a new field of molecular epidemiology that has provided crucial insight into how this deadly parasite causes disease and drug resistance,” Professor Hilton said.
“Through our collaborations and innovations at WEHI, we strive to ensure people can live healthier and longer lives in Australia and around the world.
“The impact of Alan’s research and leadership is helping to make the global eradication of malaria within the next 20-30 years a real possibility.”
The Florey Medal is awarded biennially to a select Australian biomedical researcher who has accrued lifetime achievements in biomedical science or human health advancement. The award includes a $50,000 prize with the generous support of CSL.
Previous WEHI winners of the Florey Medal include Professors Andreas Strasser and David Vaux (2019) and Professor Peter Colman (2004).
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