Malaria research acknowledged (Issue 38, 2010)


La Trobe Dr Alexander Maier has been recognised for his research into malaria

La Trobe University biochemist, Dr Alexander Maier, has been shortlisted for one of Australia’s top scientific awards – the Eureka Prize.

The award judges say Dr Maier has made an enormous step forward in understanding a key adaptive strategy used by the malaria parasite to survive in – and cause damage to – its human host. 

Working with ‘gene knock-out technology’, Dr Maier has documented more than 30 genes essential for the parasite’s survival. These genes are now being targeted for potential new drugs to combat a disease that kills more than one million people, most of them children, every year.

Dr Maier’s team of seven people at La Trobe’s main Melbourne campus works with other researchers in Europe, India and Africa. Their project – and potential drug design approaches based on other genes – is funded by the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Dr Maier came to Australia from Germany ten years ago as a post-doctoral researcher at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute. He joined La Trobe two years ago. He decided to stay in Melbourne because of Australia’s reputation for malaria research.

The country punches far above its weight, he says. La Trobe alone has three groups tackling different aspects of the malaria problem; the other two are led by Professor Leann Tilley and Professor Robin Anders and Associate Professor Mick Foley. And there are groups at both Monash and Melbourne universities as well as at the Burnet and Hall Institutes.

Some of the earliest molecular malaria work was done at Melbourne’s Hall Institute, which generated the world’s first knock-out of a malaria gene. When Dr Maier came to Australia in 2000, he says there were less than ten known gene knock-outs. Since then, largely through work of the Hall Institute’s Functional Genomics Facility, which he headed for six years, Australia has added another 100.

‘Today there are about 150 such knock-out cell lines recognised world-wide – so more than three quarter of the work has been done in Australia,’ he says.

Plasmodium falciparum, the most dangerous of five known malaria causing parasites, has about 5000 genes, compared with some 25 000 for a human being.

‘Malaria has been known for thousands of years,’ says Dr Maier. ‘It’s caused by a small single cell creature. Our human brain has billions of cells. Yet malaria still continues to out-smart us!’

Dr Maier is a staff member of the Biochemistry Department at La Trobe University.