WEHI scientist recognised with CSL Florey Medal for malaria research

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Melbourne scientist Professor Alan Cowman AC has been awarded the 2021 CSL Florey Medal.

Professor Cowman of WEHI in Melbourne has been recognised for his research into how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes disease in humans and how it evolves to outwit antimalarial drugs. He has also created genetic tools to modify the parasite, which have been used by malaria researchers worldwide.

The 2021 medal was presented at the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) annual dinner at Parliament House having been postponed for a year due to pandemic restrictions. The medal is biennial.

Professor Cowman's work has led to a major industry collaboration that has created a new class of compounds, now in preclinical testing, that target three stages in the chain of transmission.

They are targeted to stop the parasite from spreading from infected blood cells, block transmission from humans back to the mosquito, and prevent the liver stage of the parasite infection. This three-pronged approach will, if successful, make it very difficult for the parasite to develop resistance to the treatment.

Global efforts over the past 20 to 30 years have successfully reduced malaria deaths worldwide from around 965,000 in 2004. Yet it still kills more than 627,000 people and infects more than 240 million people each year, creating a poverty trap for many communities.

“With new malaria parasite strains increasingly becoming resistant to available drugs, the development of vaccines and novel antimalarial compounds to block transmission remain the most effective preventative measure against this killer disease,” said Professor Cowman, who is deputy director at WEHI and a laboratory head in the Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division.

CSL’s chief scientific officer Dr Andrew Nash said the research has global ramifications.

“lan’s discoveries show how studying the fundamental genetic science of a parasite can lead to improved understanding of a disease, tools to map its evolution and spread, and new therapies to prevent or fight infection,” he said.

“CSL’s support of the Florey Medal is a reflection of our commitment to foster Australia’s biomedical research community and ultimately, to deliver on our promise to protect human health,” says Dr Nash. “We congratulate Alan on his achievements.”