A lifetime investigating malaria leads to drugs that push back on resistance… And a CSL Florey Medal

Alan Cowman wins $50,000 CSL Florey Medal for Lifetime Achievement for revealing how malaria parasites infect humans, paving the way for new drugs and vaccines for a disease that infects more than 240 million people a year, and keeps communities in poverty.

Past CSL Florey Medallists include Graeme Clark, Ian Frazer, Ruth Bishop, and Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.

Professor Alan Cowman. Image credit: WEHI

Melbourne scientist Professor Alan Cowman AC has worked to understand how the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum causes disease in humans and how it evolves to outwit antimalarial drugs. He has also created genetic tools to modify the parasite, which have been used by malaria researchers worldwide.

Professor Cowman of WEHI in Melbourne has been awarded the CSL Florey Medal, presented by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS). The 2021 medal was presented at the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) annual dinner today at Parliament House, having been postponed for a year due to pandemic restrictions. The medal is biennial.

Over the course of his career, Alan has revealed the fundamental biology and molecular mechanisms of how malaria parasites infect humans, hijack red blood cells and use them to produce proteins that help the parasite evade the body’s immune responses.

He also discovered key mutations in the parasite’s genes that are responsible for resistance to antimalarial drugs, enabling researchers to map the spread of drug resistance. This was a significant leap in understanding the parasite and how it causes the disease – vital for the development of new drugs.

The genetic knowledge and technology developed from his research led to the first genetically engineered malaria vaccine, currently in clinical trials, which is intended to stop the parasite from reaching the bloodstream and causing severe disease.

His work has led to a major industry collaboration that has created a new class of compounds, now in preclinical testing, that target three stages in the chain of transmission. They are targeted to stop the parasite spreading from infected blood cells, block transmission from humans back to the mosquito, and prevent the liver stage of the parasite infection. This three-pronged approach will, if successful, make it very difficult for the parasite to develop resistance to the treatment.

Global efforts over the past 20 to 30 years have successfully reduced malaria deaths worldwide from around 965,000 in 2004. But it still kills more than 627,000 people and infects more than 240 million people each year, creating a poverty trap for many communities.

“With new malaria parasite strains increasingly becoming resistant to available drugs, the development of vaccines and novel antimalarial compounds to block transmission remain the most effective preventative measure against this killer disease,” says Alan, who is Deputy Director at WEHI and a Laboratory Head in the Infectious Diseases and Immune Defence Division.

CSL’s Chief Scientific Officer, Dr Andrew Nash, adds that the research has global ramifications.

“Alan’s discoveries show how studying the fundamental genetic science of a parasite can lead to improved understanding of a disease, tools to map its evolution and spread, and new therapies to prevent or fight infection,” he says.

“CSL’s support of the Florey Medal is a reflection of our commitment to foster Australia’s biomedical research community and ultimately, to deliver on our promise to protect human health,” says Dr Nash. “We congratulate Alan on his achievements.”        

AIPS director Peter McMahon highlights the importance of Alan’s research.

“Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children under five years of age in most developing countries. Alan’s past and ongoing work will play an important role in achieving the World Health Organization’s goal of reducing malaria mortality rates by 90 per cent of 2015 levels by 2030.”

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The CSL Florey Medal

The Florey Medal is awarded biennially to an Australian biomedical researcher for significant achievements in biomedical science and/or human health advancement. In addition to the silver medal, the award currently carries a prize of $50,000 due to the generous support of CSL Limited.

This award was established in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in honour of the Australian Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Sir Howard Florey, who developed penicillin.

The Florey Medal is part of the Tall Poppy Campaign which aims to recognise and promote scientific and intellectual excellence in Australia.

Past winners are:

2019 – Professors David Vaux and Andreas Strasser

Revealing the links between cell death and cancer.

2017 – Professor Elizabeth Rakoczy                                                       

Development of a new gene therapy for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD).

2015 – Professor Perry Bartlett

Discovery of brain stem cells, transforming our understanding of the brain development and function.

2013 – Professor Ruth Bishop

Discovery of rotavirus and the fight against this virus that has killed millions of young children through acute gastroenteritis.

2011 – Professor Graeme Clark

Development of Australia’s bionic ear.

2009 – Professor John Hopwood

Diagnosis and treatment of genetically inherited disorders that affect children with clinical effects leading to progressive destruction of the brain and other organs.

2006 – Professor Ian Frazer

Research towards the development of vaccines against human papillomaviruses, including cervical cancer and genital warts affecting the lives of millions globally.

2004 – Professor Peter Colman

Structural biology research, particularly for the discovery of a new class of anti-influenza drug.

2002 – Professor Colin Masters

Work relating to Alzheimer’s disease.

2000 – Professor Jacques Miller

Discovery of the function of the thymus which signalled a seminal contribution to immunology.

1998 – Dr Robin Warren and Professor Barry Marshall

Discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.

The Medal

The Florey Medal is hand sculpted by Michael Meszaros. Michael has lived as a sculptor in Melbourne for nearly four decades, producing a wide range of work ranging from major public pieces to his speciality of medals. He learned this from his father Andor, also a sculptor and medallist of international reputation.

This work is closely based on a portrait medal Andor made when Sir Howard Florey sat for him in 1963, commissioned by the Florey Institute at The University of Melbourne. Michael met Sir Howard at the time. Using Andor’s original as a guide, Michael has remodelled it in this size, adding a different inscription, designing a reverse and casting it in bright sterling silver.

The Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS)

The Australian Institute of Policy and Science is an independent and non-partisan not-for-profit organisation first founded in 1932. They have grown with Australia’s public policy history and work to:

  • increase public engagement in science
  • promote excellence in research, innovation and the promotion and communication of science
  • inform and influence policy and policy-making
  • invest in a scientifically inspired, literate and skilled Australia that contributes to local and global social challenges.

AIPS achieves its objectives through an extensive network of partners spanning university, government, industry and community actors.