2020 Centenary Fellowships fund malaria, cancer research

Thursday, 17 October, 2019

2020 Centenary Fellowships fund malaria, cancer research

Two Australian scientists — Dr Kamala Thriemer and Associate Professor Daniel Thomas (both pictured) — have each been awarded $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowships to improve treatments for two of the world’s biggest health challenges: malaria and cancer.

The CSL Centenary Fellowships are competitively selected, high-value grants available to mid-career Australians who wish to continue a career in medical research in Australia. They were established in 2016 to mark 100 years since the establishment of CSL, with two individual, five-year fellowships awarded each calendar year.

Dr Thriemer, a public health researcher at the Menzies School of Health Research in Darwin, will use her $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship to develop and optimise treatment programs against vivax malaria in South-East Asia and the Horn of Africa.

Vivax malaria is the second-largest cause of malaria deaths and is hard to treat because after the initial attack, the parasite can hide in the liver and reappear weeks or even months later. A long period of treatment is required, which patients often don’t complete, so they get sick again.

“We found that in Indonesia, for example, only 10% of patients successfully completed the treatment,” Dr Thriemer said.

Developing public health policy to combat vivax malaria across its global range is Dr Thriemer’s primary focus. She is confident that vivax malaria can be controlled using the suite of drugs currently available, but her research reveals that public health strategies to improve treatment outcomes must align with the geographic and economic conditions in any given nation.

The five-year CSL Centenary Fellowship will thus enable Dr Thriemer to generate country-specific roadmaps to guide public health programs. It will also assist Darwin’s growing reputation as a key location for tropical health research.

Assoc Prof Thomas, meanwhile, has developed new ways to identify a cancer’s weakness and target it with personalised treatment.

After gaining a PhD in haematology from the University of Adelaide, Assoc Prof Thomas moved to the US and took up a fellowship at Stanford University, where he succeeded in pinpointing several targets for cancer medications. These included four mutation-specific locations for acute myeloid leukaemia and the prediction of 145,891 synthetic partners for 3120 recurrent mutations for 12 cancer types.

“One of the great discoveries we made at Stanford was that cancer cells cannot cope with two challenges at the same time,” Assoc Prof Thomas said. “There are limits to their evolution.

“If you can match a specific pathway with a specific mutation in a specific patient, then you can stop its growth and you might also be able to cure.

“My dream is to be able to look at each patient’s genome, sequence the cancer and then put them on a series of non-toxic drugs, maybe even change their diet slightly, and have the cancer cured.”

The CSL Centenary Fellowship will facilitate Assoc Prof Thomas’s return from Stanford University to the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and the University of Adelaide, where he will start treating patients with blood cancer including acute myeloid leukaemia.

“The CSL Fellowship will facilitate a full-time faculty position at SAHMRI,” he said.

“I can now concentrate on basic and translational research, and hire a research assistant, without requiring private practice to supplement my family’s income.

Assoc Prof Thomas said he will maintain his focus on acute myeloid leukaemia as a testbed because it is stable and predictable, claiming: “Anything we can achieve in one patient, probably we can achieve it in the next.”

The Fellowships were presented at the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences Gala Dinner, held in Perth on 10 October, with CSL Chief Scientific Officer Professor Andrew Cuthbertson saying that Dr Thriemer and Assoc Prof Thomas both work in fields of global significance.

“These projects add to Australia’s international reputation for strong research with significant translational potential and global application,” he said.

“The CSL Centenary Fellowships aim to provide funding stability for leading Australian researchers through high-value, long-term support. We are proud to support this research and are excited by the benefits of these projects — not the least of which will be a new generation of young researchers inspired and mentored by Kamala and Daniel.”

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