Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Hope for malaria answers

Every person infected with malaria carries about 12 billion malaria parasites. The parasites evolve constantly, staying one step ahead of the body's immune system and rendering malaria a life-threatening disease.

But molecular parasitologist Alan Cowman believes that will change in time, as science catches up with one of the most deadly parasites and limits its ability to reinvent itself.

On Tuesday Professor Cowman's work over 30 years was recognised with one of Victoria's top science prizes, the $50,000 Victoria Prize for science and innovation in the life sciences category.

Among his achievements is getting a potential malaria vaccine to clinical trials in America in 2010. This involved genetically modifying the malaria parasite so it became unable to enter the bloodstream, where it does the damage.

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Malaria is caused by parasites which are spread to people through the bites of infected mosquitoes. Professor Cowman's research has focused on a parasite linked to the most severe types of malaria. Just how the Plasmodium falciparum parasite infects humans and manages to avoid detection by the immune system have been key questions in his quest to eradicate malaria.

''Malaria is an incredibly interesting parasite with lots of scientific questions,'' Professor Cowman said. ''Plus it's an important disease globally and I wanted to do something medically relevant.''

According to the World Health Organisation about 3.3 billion people, or half of the world's population, are at risk of malaria. In 2010, malaria caused an estimated 660,000 deaths worldwide.

Professor Cowman was one of two scientists to receive a Victoria Prize on Tuesday. Joining him was Melbourne University physicist Lloyd Hollenberg, who was honoured with the $50,000 physical sciences award for his discovery of ground-breaking quantum-sensing technology.

Professor Hollenberg led a team whose work building nano-scale diamond sensors capable of lighting up the inside of cells has any number of applications, from use in nano-medicine and drug testing to understanding brain function. Only last month, the team received a Eureka award for excellence in interdisciplinary research.

Innovation Minister Louise Asher presented the Victoria Prize awards in a ceremony at Parliament House on Tuesday night.

Early career scientists were also recognised, with six Victoria fellows for physical sciences and six Victoria fellows for life sciences awarded up to $18,000 to enable them to study overseas.

Ms Asher described the fellowships as ''a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity'' for researchers to study overseas and return to Victoria armed with fresh insights and expertise.


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