Parasite researcher wins international malaria medal

December 03, 2014

Melbourne researcher Professor Alan Cowman has won the Sornchai Looareesuwan Medal 2014 for his significant contributions to understanding how the malaria parasite causes disease and for his search for potential malaria vaccines.

Professor Cowman will receive the award at the International Tropical Medicine Meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, today.

Professor Cowman, head of the Infection and Immunity division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and his team have spent decades probing the inner workings of the most deadly malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum. His work has led to the creation of two potential malaria vaccines, one in clinical trials and another in preclinical development.

He has also made important discoveries about the biology of the malaria parasite, including how it evades the immune system, infiltrates and remodels red blood cells to replicate and spread, and how it communicates with other parasites to trigger the next stage of infection.

Professor Cowman said the work had the potential to aid the quest to eradicate malaria.

"We can use our understanding of how the parasite survives within a human host to identify weaknesses to target with new drugs," he said. "In addition, our work on malaria transmission and resistance informs eradication and control programs, providing knowledge to devise the best strategies for minimising malaria spread."

Professor Cowman said medical research had reduced the toll of malaria globally. "Sustained efforts to eradicate malaria has seen the disease disappear from many countries around the world," he said. "These gains are very encouraging, however malaria can quickly become resistant to existing therapies, and there is much more that needs to be done."

More than 200 million people worldwide are infected by the Plasmodium parasite that causes malaria, with up to 700,000 people dying every year from the disease.

Professor Cowman said he was deeply honoured to receive the Sornchai Looareesuwan Medal. "Professor Sornchai Looareesuwan was an outstanding scientist who made a significant contribution to malaria research and I am humbled to receive the medal named in his honour," he said. "Our team has worked hard for many years to find new ways to tackle this disease and this award also recognises their outstanding efforts."

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said Professor Cowman was an invaluable asset to the scientific community and people affected by the disease. "The awards and international recognition Alan has received throughout his career clearly demonstrate how significant his contributions have been," he said. "Alan has dedicated his life's work to eradicating malaria and he has succeeded in making substantial inroads towards this goal. I congratulate him whole-heartedly for his latest award."

Professor Cowman has received numerous awards, fellowships and honours throughout his career, including the 2013 Victoria Prize for Science and Innovation, the Commonwealth of Australia Centenary Medal, the Mahathir Science Award in Tropical Research from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia and the Howard Taylor Ricketts Medal for Infectious Diseases from the University of Chicago. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and Australian Academy of Science.

The Sornchai Looareesuwan Medal is awarded by the Faculty of Tropical Medicine at Mahidol University, Thailand, and recognises a researcher who has focused their efforts on malaria and made a significant contribution to the field.

Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

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