Professor Si Ming Man, John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra
Si Ming Man is tackling central questions of immunology: how do disease-fighting proteins produced by the immune system recognise pathogens, and how can these natural defence mechanisms be harnessed to fight infectious diseases?
The answers could lead to alternatives to over-used and increasingly ineffective antibiotics, providing new ways to combat multidrug-resistant microbes.
Disease-fighting proteins can recognise invading bacteria, setting in train an immune response. Understanding exactly how this process works, however, is a continuing challenge.
Some 17 million people die each year from infectious diseases. Antibiotics are the first line of treatment but their overuse in hospitals and agriculture has resulted in an alarming rise in bacterial resistance. The United Nations estimates that by 2050 drug-resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year.
Si Ming aims to use his $1.25 million CSL Centenary Fellowship to study a particular family of disease-fighting immune system proteins known as guanylate-binding proteins (GBPs).
“The immune system is an incredible toolbox full of tricks, which we can learn from,” he says. “We now think the GBPs have a receptor similar to an antenna that can sense a pathogen once they invade our bodies.”
Four years ago, Si Ming made the exciting discovery that these proteins could attack E. coli bacteria.
“They go and find the pathogen and break it apart, uncloaking it so the rest of the immune system can see it and destroy it,” he says.
That exciting breakthrough led to the hypothesis that the proteins could be harnessed as a disease-fighting system without the need to turn to antibiotics.
“The overall goal of the research is to find more and more of these disease-fighting proteins from our own immune system and harness their power to destroy all types of microbes, including bacteria and viruses,” he explains.
Si Ming’s work is ambitious because the family of GBPs is large. The CSL Centenary Fellowship allows him the space to give those ambitions full rein which could lead to lasting holistic solutions to the problem of multi-drug resistance.
“It provides continuous five-year support for young researchers like myself, which is incredibly important and my stage of my career,” he says. “That means that I can ask big questions, and train the next generation of young researchers.”