La Trobe professor wins award for malaria research (Issue 4, 2011)

20110216_Leann-Tilley La Trobe University Professor of Biochemistry Leann Tilley has been awarded the Beckman Coulter Discovery Science Award from the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Professor Tilley received the award for her research into the molecular workings of the parasite that causes malaria.

Collaborating with physicists and biologists within the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-ray Science and the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, Tilley’s research uses newly-available high resolution imaging technologies to gather information about the cellular architecture of the parasite that causes malaria.

‘By using high-resolution imaging, we are able to gain a better understanding of how exactly the malaria parasite can be lethal,’ states Professor Tilley.

‘Once the parasite gets inside red blood cells it begins to eat the haemoglobin within the cell. During the digestion and growth processes the parasite changes the structure of the red blood cell and after 48 hours it moves on to a new cell, leaving toxic debris behind.

‘This process alters the red blood cell’s surface properties making it adhere to blood vessel walls, often in the victim’s brain. This can lead to toxins being released into the brain. In kids, this causes them to go into a coma and very often they don't recover,’ Professor Tilley says.

While the work Professor Tilley and her fellow researchers are carrying out has important implications for the development of drugs to both prevent and treat malaria, she says the work does have its lighter side.

‘With biologists and physicists working side by side it was sometimes very difficult for the two groups to understand each other. We have a lot of fun working out what the other group is trying to say.’

The Beckman Coulter Discovery Science Award provides A$2500 that will enable Professor Tilley to visit colleagues in Australia and New Zealand and to speak about her work at conferences and research seminars.

Stemming from her 20 years as a malaria researcher, Professor Tilley has a wealth of knowledge about malaria and its dramatic consequences, not just for an individual’s health but also how the disease can trap societies in devastating cycles of poverty.

‘As malaria is a mosquito-borne disease it is predominantly found in tropical and sub-tropical environments throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Americas. With vast numbers of people affected in these regions by malaria each year, the effects on local and national economies are significant,' says Professor Tilley.