2014 PAHMR recipients

 

The Recipient of the 2014 Premier’s Award for Health & Medical Research

Dr Jaclyn Pearson - The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity

Understanding how to fight bacterial gut infections caused by E. coli, and deciphering its evolution to evade the body’s complex immune responses could hold the key to combatting a range of diseases in developed and developing countries.

Dr Jaclyn Pearson’s research is focused on two gastrointestinal pathogens that cause diarrhoea in humans: enteropathogenic E. coli (EPEC) which particularly impacts infants under two years of age; and enterohemorrhagic E. coli (EHEC) which can cause extensive kidney damage.  In developing countries EPEC causes disease in a wide range of settings including hospitals, outpatient clinics, and within rural and urban areas. It is often the most frequently isolated pathogen in infants under six months with diarrhoea, sometimes exceeding that of Rotavirus.

Dr Pearson also explored the mechanisms by which the E-coli bacteria cause disease. EPEC adheres intimately to the surface of intestinal cells and injects a number of proteins (effectors) directly into the cell via a needle-like apparatus.

Her research involved defining the role of three of these effectors, two of which block the function of proteins in our gut cells that are essential for activating our immune response to infection, allowing the bacteria to 'hide' in the human host long enough to multiply, cause disease and spread to other humans.  She also demonstrated how the third effector blocks the intestinal cells' natural protective ability to die when infected with a microbe. Furthermore, she discovered that some people with inflammatory bowel disease are genetically defective in this cell-death mechanism.

Understanding the mechanisms by which these pathogens cause disease is essential in developing targeted drug therapies.  As the first author of a paper for the prestigious “Nature” publication and several other leading microbiology journals, Dr Pearson has consistently led the delivery of results for publication.

 

Commendations were awarded to

In no particular order:

Dr Peng Lei - The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health

Breakthrough research clarifying the molecular function of a protein found in neurons common to several neurodegenerative diseases could provide the clues to determining the cause of these incurable and common diseases of advanced age, and eventually lead to treatments.

Dr Peng Lei’s postdoctoral studies built on research findings from the 1980s which identified a special type of protein called tau accumulating as microscopic tangles within neurons in patients with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. While the link between Parkinson’s disease and tau protein was established there was no molecular understanding of how it contributed to either disease. Dr Lei was able to demonstrate that tau reduction caused iron retention and led to strital-nigral (striatonigral) degeneration, a sporadic, progressive neurodegenerative disorder. 

Dr Lei’s new insights have the potential to re-shape the field’s understanding of tau protein and disease mechanisms of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. His work also recast the role of iron in the two diseases providing a solid foundation for related drug discovery.

Dr Lei is a leading researcher at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. He already has a stellar publishing record with journal papers published in a number of prestigious publications including ‘Nature Medicine’. In addition, he has registered two patents, and won the University of Melbourne’s Chancellor’s Prize for the outstanding thesis in Medicine or Veterinary Science in 2013. His ‘Nature Medicine’ paper on tau proteins and their link to the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases also resulted in a collaboration investigating the possible link between cardiac tau protein and heart failure. 

Dr Lei has a strong profile in the Australian neuroscience community and in the international Alzheimer’s research community, and has been invited to deliver numerous speeches at conferences and universities.

Dr Daniel Pellicci - The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Victorian researchers, including Dr David Riglar, have captured an unprecedented view of malaria parasites including the world’s first images of the parasite invading blood cells.

The parasite is one of humanity’s most devastating pathogens, annually causing the deaths of one million children under the age of five. With no licensed vaccine, increasing resistance to all frontline drugs, and the underperformance of promising vaccine candidates in clinical trials, there is an urgent need for continued research, particularly focused on more effectively understanding and evaluating therapeutic approaches during their early stages of development.

Plasmodium falciparum parasites remain the cause of the most severe form of malaria. The parasite progressively invades red blood cells, increasing its numbers exponentially. At this point of invasion and in the minutes following the parasite is at its most vulnerable. 

Dr Riglar’s postdoctoral research has, for the first time, allowed us to capture human malaria parasites during this critical invasion time and view them in ‘super’ resolution. His work has led to an unprecedented understanding of the parasite processes occurring around invasion. This knowledge is transforming malaria researchers’ approaches to the identification, development and evaluation of therapeutics that could stop this deadly parasite in its tracks. 

The imaging used a type of state-of-the-art, ‘super-resolution’, three-dimensional, structured-illumination microscopy - the first microscope of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. 

The research has led to 13 separate publications with almost 400 combined citations to date. 

 

Dr  Brett Manley - The University of Melbourne

Every year, thousands of Australian babies, along with millions more around the world, are born prematurely. These babies are extremely fragile, and many have difficulty breathing, requiring specialist care in an intensive care unit. 

The sickest, most premature infants require the assistance of a mechanical ventilator. This has traditionally used a breathing system called nasal continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a type of support that uses large prongs in the baby's nose to blow pressurised gas into their lungs. Unfortunately, nasal CPAP can be difficult to administer, uncomfortable for infants, and may damage their nose.  

It is also important to get these babies off the ventilator as soon as possible to avoid prolonged ventilation injuring their lungs, and researchers including Dr Brett Manley have been trying to find better, gentler ways to support the breathing of these babies. 

Dr Manley performed a large trial, which received international recognition, where very premature infants (born more than two months early) coming off a ventilator machine were randomly allocated to either the standard form of support, nasal CPAP, or a new support called 'high-flow'. 

High-flow nasal cannulae (HFNC), which became available for use in newborn infants in the last seven years uses smaller prongs than nasal CPAP, and is easier for nurses and doctors to administer. Through the trial, Dr Manley proved that high-flow was safe, worked as well as nasal CPAP, and also caused less damage to the babies' noses.

Dr Manley and his colleagues found that HFNC significantly reduced the incidence of nasal trauma compared to nasal CPAP. These results have provided clinical evidence to support the practice of treating premature infants with HFNC, meaning neonatal clinicians are now armed with an alternative non-invasive method for treating these vulnerable new members of the Australian population. 

 

 

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