NHMRC honours research excellence at WEHI

NHMRC honours research excellence at WEHI

30 March 2023
WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton AO and researchers Professor Wai-Hong Tham and Dr Caleb Dawson have been honoured with prestigious National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Research Excellence Awards. 

At a glance 

  • WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton AO has received the Outstanding Contribution Award in recognition of his impact on Australian health and medical research.  
  • Professor Wai-Hong Tham has received an Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Award for her research into new antibody-based approaches to the treatment of infectious diseases including malaria and COVID-19. 
  • Dr Caleb Dawson has received the Science to Art Award, which recognises outstanding imagery that has arisen from research funded by the NHMRC.  

Sector leadership recognised 

Professor Doug Hilton AO

WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton AO has been awarded the Outstanding Contribution Award in recognition of his impact and advocacy for Australian health and medical research.  

As director of WEHI for 14 years, Professor Hilton has been one of the sector’s most passionate advocates, championing fundamental science and how its translation has a transformative impact on our lives. 

Professor Hilton was honoured for his decades of effort to change the landscape of Australian health and medical research through a progressive mentoring approach, campaigning for gender equity in science, and providing leadership in the sector. 

The award also recognised his service to the NHMRC, particularly his role in the overhaul of the NHMRC funding system, and his contribution to guiding government policies and investment in the sector. 

Potent antibodies to stop an ancient disease  

Professor Wai-Hong Tham

Professor Wai-Hong Tham has received the Elizabeth Blackburn Investigator Grant Award (Leadership in Basic Science) as the female researcher whose application for NHMRC funding ranked highest in its category. 

Professor Tham, head of the division of Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence at WEHI and co-Chair of the WEHI Biologics Initiative, has recently received $2.1 million in NHMRC funding to support her laboratory’s research into developing antibodies and nanobodies as treatments for infections including malaria and those caused by human coronaviruses. 

Her malaria research centres on understanding interactions between malaria parasites and their hosts – humans and mosquitoes – at structural and molecular levels, with the aim of developing more targeted biologic interventions. 

“Thanks to recent innovations in antibody engineering and delivery, there is enormous potential to revolutionise the treatment and prevention of infectious diseases if we can identify optimal pathogen targets to stop the cycle of infection,” explained Professor Tham.  

Over the next five years, with NHMRC funding support, her malaria research will continue to build a deep understanding of the protein complexes that are critical to parasite fertilisation, so that these proteins can be targeted using new antibody-based and nanobody-based interventions.  

As a key part of her role in the WEHI Biologics Initiative, Professor Tham established the WEHI Nanobody Platform, the first immunised alpaca nanobody platform in Australia.  

Nanobodies are tiny naturally-derived antibody fragments that have high affinity for binding to infectious antigens and are stable across a range of temperature and pH conditions. 

“Alpacas make unique antibodies, smaller than human antibodies, and we can use the antibodies they make when we expose them to non-infectious proteins from pathogens as the basis for laboratory-made nanobodies to use as treatments.” 

Knowledge and techniques gained during the Tham laboratory’s work on malaria are now being used to inform the development of new therapies against a broader range of infectious diseases. 

“When COVID-19 emerged, we were able to use the WEHI Nanobody Platform and advanced structural biology approaches from our work on malaria to help develop nanobodies targeting SARS-CoV-2 to prevent the virus from entering cells,” said Professor Tham. 

“In the next phase of research – also funded by this new grant from the NHMRC – we’re aiming to further develop our potent nanobody cocktail and explore different formulations and routes of administration to get antibody-based therapies closer to the site of COVID-19 infection.” 

Artistic achievement 

Dr Caleb Dawson 

Postdoctoral research fellow Dr Caleb Dawson has been awarded the Science to Art Award, recognising outstanding imagery that has arisen from research funded by the NHMRC. 

Dr Dawson used advanced 3D imaging to study immune cells in breast tissue as part of a broader NHMRC-funded research program looking at the roles of programmed cell death and stem/progenitor cells in the development and treatment of cancer. 

His award-winning high-resolution 3D image shows tiny muscle-like cells (in yellow and magenta) wrapped around the clusters of milk-producing alveoli that “bloom” in the breast in response to hormones released during pregnancy and lactation. 

The images helped the team discover a resident population of the immune cells called macrophages in normal breast tissue that remove milk-producing cells after weaning to keep the breast healthy. 

Dr Dawson is now developing new methods of tissue engineering to study how immune cells communicate to protect against disease. He is also using the latest spatial genomics technology to study the arrangement of cells in tissues and how this helps them to monitor for cancer. 

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