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Burnet's work featured in 'Bodies of Work' liftout - The Saturday Age

Burnet Institute

19 August, 2011

Associate Professor Rose Ffrench with Sarah Charnaud from the Centre for Immunology.

Associate Professor Rose Ffrench, Associate Professor Heidi Drummer and Dr James Beeson showcased their research while research assistant Sarah Charnaud made an amazing cover girl.

Here are excepts of the stories. Courtesy of The Saturday Age.

Using insects to make vaccines

Insects get viruses, too. These viruses are later excreted encased in protein crystals, and are being used by scientists at the Burnet Institute and Monash University to help create new vaccines to protect people against diseases like HIV.

Associate Professor Rose Ffrench, head of the Viral Immunology Group at Burnet, said researchers were trying to use the properties of the crystals to stimulate the immune system to recognise foreign antigens and make the right response.

Associate Professor Ffrench, who is conducting the vaccine research in collaboration with Dr Fasseli Coulibaly from Monash University, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said the protein crystals excreted by the infected insects formed a hard shell that protected the virus from dehydrating.

“You end up with a crystal that’s got the HIV protein embedded within it, which we call the HIV MicroCube vaccine” Associate Professor Ffrench said.

The result is a vaccine candidate that is very stable at high temperatures, which may make it useful in the developing world. “You could leave it on the bench for weeks and it won’t get degraded.”

This also suggests that it may release the HIV protein into the immune system very slowly, which is likely to give stronger and longer lasting responses, she said.

“It’s quite exciting because normally you would get an antibody response but you wouldn’t get much of a T-cell response. “We think it’s quite a promising strategy, but it’s very early stages yet.

Tackling Hepatitis C before infection

Hepatitis C is a tricky infection. It is able to develop different strains even in the same person. There is no vaccine to prevent the blood-borne virus, which causes inflammation and damages the liver.

But researchers at the Viral Fusion Laboratory at the Burnet Institute in Melbourne are well on the way to outwitting it. Associate Professor Heidi Drummer’s research focuses on trying to make one of the surface proteins of the virus so that the immune system can recognise it and develop antibodies that will prevent infection in the first place.

“We are trying to work out how can we produce one of the surface proteins of the virus and put it together in a vaccine so the immune system makes the appropriate antibody response to stop the virus from attaching to the cells,” Associate Professor Drummer says.

“The aim of the vaccine is to actually stop the infection process from happening all together. That’s the ideal gold standard for a vaccine.” There is also a component of the vaccine that could help clear the infected cells, if the virus does get into the cell.

“The main thing we’re looking at is how antibodies that are generated by the immune system can prevent attachment of the virus to its cellular receptor – the thing that it sticks to on the surface of the cell,” Associate Professor Drummer said.

The research is still in its early stages and clinical trials are probably a few years away.

The mozzie bite that kills

Every morning, at least one million people in the world wake up sick with malaria, and each year up to one million people die from the disease. It takes a face-to-face encounter with malaria to make you really wake up.

That’s what happened to Dr James Beeson, who worked in Africa as a young medical student and later as a physician in a Thai refugee camp.

“I spent several months working in a refugee camp on the Thai Burma border, where I would see pregnant women with malaria, which was very difficult to treat.”

Dr Beeson now heads the Beeson Laboratory at the Burnet Institute to try to find a cure for malaria. Working with international institutions, he conducts studies in children and pregnant women in Kenya, Papua New Guinea and Thailand.

The research studies people who have been infected with malaria and then got better, and what their immune system does to attack the malaria and get rid of it.

“If we can identify how the body naturally does it, our idea is to make a vaccine based on that and which could help the immune system stop malaria much more quickly and effectively,” he said.

To get a copy of the poster and others in the series contact The Age Education Resource Centre on 1800 633 766 or erc@theage.com.au.

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Burnet Institute

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