Professor Cowman has spent his more than 30-year career studying Plasmodium falciparum, the parasite that causes the most severe form of malaria in humans. He and his research team have made significant inroads into understanding how P. falciparum infects humans and persists in the body by evading the immune system.
He received the NHMRC Research Excellence award for the highest-ranked NHMRC Research Fellow. The NHMRC awards recognise outstanding performance and excellence in health and medical research and innovation.
Professor Cowman’s work has led to the development of two potential malaria vaccines, one of which reached clinical trials in the US. The second – a live attenuated (GAP) vaccine against P. falciparum – will soon go into phase 1 clinical trials in Australia.
He said the GAP vaccine would use a ‘disarmed’ parasite stripped of its ability to evade immune detection to stimulate immunity to the disease.
“My work aims to understand how malaria parasites infect humans and cause disease, and use this information to identify novel drug and vaccine targets to develop new treatments,” he said.
“This has led us to identify the malaria parasite protein plasmepsin V as a strong drug target, against which we are developing inhibitors that kill the malaria parasite,” he said.
Malaria infects more than 200 million people worldwide each year and kills more than 450,000 people, many women and children.
“Our goal is to understand what makes the malaria parasite ‘tick’ in order to develop vaccines or drug therapies that would eradicate this devastating disease,” he said.
Professor Cowman’s research has also made major contributions to understanding malarial drug resistance, unravelling the mechanism the parasite uses to become resistant to some of the most important antimalarial drugs. This has had implications for the development of new antimalarial treatments and opened the way for surveillance of the geographic spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria.
Professor Cowman is deputy director of science strategy at the Institute and joint head of the Institute’s Infection and Immunity division. He has previously been awarded the top-ranked NHMRC Research Fellow in 2011, and was part of a research team that won the Research Excellence Award for top-ranked NHMRC program grant in 2014.
In addition, Professor Cowman has received awards including the Mahathir Science Award from the Mahathir Science Foundation, Malaysia, in 2013, the Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation from the Victorian Government in 2013, and was made a Fellow of The Royal Society in 2011.
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