EMBL Australia group leader Dr Michelle Boyle has been awarded a prestigious CSL Centenary Fellowship that will see $1.25 million over five years go towards her cutting-edge work boosting protection against malaria.
Dr Boyle and her team at QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute have discovered how our immune response to malaria can be disrupted by the malaria parasite, reducing the effectiveness of vaccination in children in malaria-affected communities.
Malaria infects over 240 million people each year, keeping many of them in poverty, with children being particularly susceptible.
With the help of the CSL Centenary Fellowship, she will work to bypass the parasite’s suppression of certain T cells critical to the body’s defences and boost the immune response to malaria.
Her research may also help improve vaccines for other chronic diseases.
Working at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne, she will investigate the function of these T cells in infection and vaccination, and develop ways to boost protection against malaria.
Dr Samuel Forster was also awarded a CSL Centenary Fellowship at the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences Annual Meeting on 13 October. He will investigate the causes of inflammatory bowel disease and design treatments.
CSL Chief Scientific Officer Dr Andrew Nash said Dr Boyle and Dr Forster were both researching serious chronic diseases and using knowledge gained to improve existing treatments and find new therapies.
“Great science leads to great medicines and vaccines,” Dr Nash said.
“Michelle and Sam are both advancing fundamental human knowledge, but with potential practical applications for diseases of global consequence.”
CSL Centenary Fellowships aim to provide funding stability for leading mid-career Australian researchers to enable the delivery of innovations that address rare and serious diseases and protect public health.
Making malaria vaccines better to save more children
While malaria deaths have reduced over the past two decades, the disease still infects more than 240 million people, many of them children.
“Despite decades of research, the single licenced malaria vaccine has only about 20 per cent efficacy in children in high malaria regions,” says Dr Boyle.
“A recent experimental vaccine was nearly 100 per cent effective in preventing malaria in previously unexposed people, but failed to produce any protective response in children already exposed to malaria.”
Her team, working at the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane, studied T follicular helper cells (Tfh), which are found in the tonsils and spleen and help B cells produce antibodies against pathogens.
“We found that a particular group of these Tfh cells drive functional antibody development in human malaria infection,” she said.
“And we found that during malaria infection these cells are not activated optimally, especially in children.”
Now Dr Boyle will use her CSL Centenary Fellowship to set up a new group within the Disease Elimination Program at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne.
She plans to investigate how malaria disrupts the Tfh cells and determine ways in which she can overcome this disruption and boost the immune response to malaria.
Studying the function of these cells during malaria infection or after vaccination has been challenging, but Dr Boyle has developed two approaches.
She will investigate single cells in the tonsils and spleens from people who currently have or have previously had malaria. Using multiple omics approaches, she hopes to identify the specific impacts of malaria.
Then she will work with tonsil and spleen organoids – groups of human cells grown in a petri dish – to determine how she can influence the development of Tfh immune cells and elicit a strong immune response.
In order to reach the World Health Organisation goal of a malaria vaccine with 75 per cent efficacy by 2030, large and rapid breakthroughs in human malaria vaccinology will be required.
Dr Boyle hopes that her research will make a significant contribution to this goal.
She also hopes that by better understanding how these Tfh-cells function and are affected by infection, her work will inform development of more effective vaccines – both against other chronic diseases and in individuals who have weakened immune responses, such as the elderly or those who are immunocompromised.
About the CSL Centenary Fellowships
The Fellowships are competitively selected, high-value grants available to mid-career Australians who wish to continue a career in medical research in Australia.
Two individual, five-year, $1.25 million fellowships are awarded each calendar year. They are open to medical researchers working on discovery or translational research with a focus on rare/serious diseases, immunology or inflammation.
For further information, visit www.cslfellowships.com.au.