Hookworm vaccine researcher awarded Fulbright Senior Scholarship to visit U.S.A. in 2012

Queensland Tropical Health Alliance researcher Professor Alex Loukas, James Cook University, has won a 2012 Fulbright Senior Scholarship.

Professor Loukas will spend three months at the University of California-Irvine through his Scholarship to work in the U.S. with Dr Phil Felgner at U.C. Irvine to develop new technologies for the high-throughput production of hookworm proteins.  These proteins will then be tested for their therapeutic potential as hookworm vaccines for developing countries, but also to treat autoimmune and allergic diseases in developed countries such as Australia. 

"Hookworms are one of the most important parasites of humans in terms of their global health impact. An estimated 600-700 million people are infected with hookworms worldwide, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and parts of Asia," said Prof Loukas.

"Helminths (worms) infect 2 billion people in developing countries. Despite the enormous morbidity and mortality that these parasites impose, there are currently no vaccines for any human helminth infection. Whilst hookworms can be treated with anthelmintic drugs, this does not prevent re-infection, and there are concerns about resistance to these medications. A vaccine for developing countries is therefore a highly desirable goal," he said.

"While these parasites cause devastating disease in their own right, they do confer some level of protection against some of the inflammatory diseases that are associated with developed, industrialized nations.  In fact, clinical trials using carefully selected helminths under controlled settings have been shown to be beneficial for people with autoimmune or allergic diseases," Prof Loukas said.

This project promises to advance the discovery of new vaccines and anti-inflammatories based on hookworm proteins, and establish a very productive US-Australia partnership in infectious diseases research by partnering Professor Felgner's expertise in cutting edge biotechnological applications with Alex's extensive infectious diseases and vaccine development expertise.

Both Professors Loukas and Felgner are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding bodies. Prof Loukas recently won a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Senior Research Fellowship for more than $700,000 for his research on the proteins secreted by helminths that parasitize humans to develop vaccines, to investigate actions on the immune system and to investigate how liver fluke infection causes cancer. Prof Loukas is also one of a team of QTHA researchers from James Cook University, Griffith University, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, the University of Queensland and researchers from Menzies School of Health Research to receive $17 million from the NHMRC for a Program Grant 'Tropical Disease - immunity, pathogenesis and vaccine development' and a LIEF grant for a 'High-resolution and high-throughput Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) facility' at James Cook University. Thus the Fulbright Scholarship to Prof Loukas is bolstering the collaboration between two very productive research groups and accelerating the global fight against neglected tropical diseases.

The prestigious Fulbright program is the largest educational scholarship of its kind, created by U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright and the U.S. Government in 1946. Aimed at promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange, it operates between the U.S. and 155 countries.

Prof Loukas is one of 25 talented Australians to be recognised as a Fulbright Scholar in 2012.

20 March 2012

For more information or to arrange an interview contact Lisa Jones +61 (0)477904853 or +61 (0)7 4042 1311 or email email/lisa.jones1)(jcu.edu.au

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