Cairns-based researcher Professor Alex Loukas has won a 2012 Fulbright Senior Scholarship to further his work on developing both a hookworm vaccine and anti-inflammatories based on hookworm proteins.
With an estimated 600 to 700 million people infected with hookworms, Professor Loukas said a vaccine was critical to human health in many developing countries.
“Hookworms are one of the most important parasites of humans in terms of global health. Their impact is particularly devastating in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and parts of Asia,” he said.
“We can treat infected people with drugs, but that doesn’t deal with the problem of rapid reinfection. There are also concerns about resistance to these medications. So for developing countries, a vaccine is our goal.”
Professor Loukas heads a laboratory at James Cook University in Cairns and is a member of the Queensland Tropical Health Alliance.
While helminths (worms that parasitise humans) cause devastating disease, they also confer a degree of protection against some of the inflammatory diseases associated with developed, industrialized nations.
“Clinical trials, using carefully selected helminths under controlled settings, have shown benefits for people with autoimmune or allergic diseases,” Professor Loukas said.
The Fulbright Scholarship will enable Professor Loukas to pursue both these lines of inquiry, spending three months working with Professor Phil Felgner at the University of California, Irvine.
By partnering Professor Felgner’s expertise in cutting-edge biotechnological applications with Professor Loukas’ expertise in infectious diseases and vaccine development, they aim to develop new technologies for high-volume production of hookworm proteins.
These proteins will be tested for their potential as hookworm vaccines in developing countries, and also as the basis for treatment of autoimmune diseases in developed countries.
Professors Loukas and Felgner are both funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other funding bodies for their vaccine development research.
“Helminths infect two billion people globally,” Professor Loukas said.
“Despite the enormous morbidity and mortality that these parasites impose, there are currently no vaccines for any human helminth infection.
“A vaccine for hookworm would accelerate the global fight against neglected tropical diseases.”
The prestigious Fulbright program is the largest educational scholarship of its kind.
Aimed at promoting mutual understanding through educational exchange, it operates between the United States and 155 countries.
In Australia, the scholarships are funded by the Australian and US Governments and corporate partners.
Professor 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.
Professor Loukas’ previous achievements include: winning the Bancroft-Mackerras medal and Ralph Doherty prize for research leadership; attracting USD$1.6 million in annual research funds to his laboratory at JCU; developing vaccines for hookworm and schistosomiasis that are in clinical trials; authorship of more than 180 scientific papers.
Issued March 20, 2012
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