AITHM James Cook University

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An Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine (AITHM) researcher has been awarded funding to develop a malaria vaccine, that – if successful - could save nearly half a million lives a year.

Professor Denise Doolan, a Professorial Research Fellow at the AITHM at James Cook University (JCU), has been awarded a $849,540 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Principal Research Fellowship to pursue her research, which also has potential implications for other infectious diseases. 

She’s one of five AITHM researchers at JCU who have been awarded a total of more than $2.5 million in the latest round of NHMRC grants (please see a detailed summary of successful AITHM NHMRC outcomes).

In addition to the Fellowship, Prof. Doolan has also been awarded a NHMRC-European Union grant ($488,914) to support one aspect of her research translation.

Specialising in the immunology of infectious diseases, Professor Doolan’s focus is on developing new therapeutics and diagnostics for the complex pathogens that cause chronic disease.

“Malaria is our immediate target, our ‘model’ disease, but the aim is to establish an approach to vaccine design and to diagnostics development that will be applicable to other conditions such as tuberculosis, hepatitis B and influenza,” Professor Doolan said.

“Nearly half the world’s population is at risk from malaria, but it’s one of many diseases – particularly in developing tropical economies – that impose a double burden of both infectious and chronic disease. For malaria alone, that’s more than 200 million clinical cases each year.”

Professor Doolan takes a holistic approach to vaccine development, examining the human immune response to the malaria parasite, as well as screening the whole genome of the parasite itself.

“One part of this work is pathogen-based. It involves sifting through the several thousand proteins expressed by the parasite, looking for those that trigger protective responses from our immune system, and so could be candidate antigens for vaccine development.

“The other line of inquiry is human-centred. It involves looking – at the molecular level – at the immune response of otherwise well people who have been experimentally exposed to malaria, and identifying which proteins their protective T-cells are actively targeting.

“The aim is to develop a data set that will help us accurately identify promising proteins, which we can then investigate as potential vaccines.”

The broad and systematic approach is required, she argues, because of our still inadequate understanding of human immune responses to our most significant pathogens.

“Most pathogens have co-evolved with us, and they’ve developed was to subvert and evade our immune response. As hosts, our interaction with our pathogens is a complex one, and we still have a great deal to learn about the fundamentals of that.”

Professor Doolan is the only Australian member of OptiMalVax, an international partnership that aims to identify new protective antigens from each of the major stages of the malaria parasite’s lifecycle, and then rapidly progressing those candidates from preclinical testing through to clinical trials. This is the work supported by her newly awarded NHMRC-European Union grant ($488,914).

“By targeting the parasite at different stages, and speeding up the pipeline from research to clinical trials, we hope to reach a highly effective vaccine against malaria, as well as developing approaches and technology that will help tackle other deadly and debilitating disease,” Professor Doolan said.

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