Dr Michelle Wykes from the QIMR had been awarded a $300,000 Smart Futures Fellowship from the Queensland State Government for research on the body’s immune response to malaria infection.
Treasurer and Minister for Employment and Economic Development Andrew Fraser said Dr Wykes’ research had the potential to contribute to a malaria vaccine.
“Malaria affects 300 to 500 million people worldwide, causing 1 million deaths per year, mostly young children under five, but also including a significant number of pregnant women,” Mr Fraser said.
“Australia is not immune from this terrible disease with about 600 cases reported here annually – mostly people who have been travelling overseas through malaria-affected countries. Of these, about one-third of cases are Queenslanders.”
There is no vaccine against malaria and current drug therapies can be highly toxic, difficult to administer and unaffordable for most sufferers, especially in the developing world.
“To complicate matters, doctors are concerned that the malaria parasite is becoming increasingly resistant to current drugs,” Mr Fraser said.
“So if we can discover an effective and cheap vaccine, we might be able to defeat this disease.”
Dr Wykes said her research would concentrate on the role that dendritic cells played in preventing infection.
“In many ways, dendritic cells are the generals that command the body’s immune cells. They give the orders when infection threatens our body and the immune cells respond,” Dr Wykes said.
“The problem with malaria is that the parasites have found a way to block dendritic cells from doing their work, meaning that the disease can overcome our immune response.”
“My research looks at how we can prevent the malaria parasite from interfering with our dendritic cells in the first place, so that they can do their job. If we can get that right, it will help us greatly with the development of a vaccine.”
She said her work will complement the groundbreaking research by QIMR Director Professor Michael Good, who is working on a malaria vaccine.
Professor Good is considered a world authority on malaria and has been working on the development of a malaria vaccine for the past 25 years.
12 Smart Futures Fellowships totalling over $2.5 million have been awarded to Queensland researchers in 2009/2010.