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11 May 2017

Immunologist named Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) – Gates International Research Scholar

A Doherty Institute scientist’s groundbreaking work on how our immune system protects against infection has earned her admission to one of the world’s most prestigious biomedical programs and close to AUD$1 million to further her research.

University of Melbourne immunologist Dr Laura Mackay, who heads a laboratory at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, has been selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) – Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation International Research Scholar.

She’s one of 41 scientists selected internationally (including six Australians) from over 1500 applicants. The program gives researchers the freedom to pursue creative and innovative science.

Dr Mackay’s research focuses on resident memory T cells that reside in tissues in the body such as the skin and lungs. These cells are critical for fighting infectious disease.

“Traditionally, vaccines have focused on boosting the immune system’s antibodies or T cells in the blood, but we now know that for certain infections, ‘resident memory T cells’ provide the best protection against infection.” Dr Mackay said.

Laura’s most recent work, published in the journals Science and Immunity, has identified key controlling genes and cellular signals that are important for the development of resident memory T cells.

Dr Mackay hopes to explore how these immune cells can be exploited to develop novel therapies for disease, with AUD$972,000 in research support.

“This funding from HHMI is an exciting opportunity to pursue fundamental questions about resident memory T cell biology,” she said.

“Understanding how to enhance the formation of these T cells, or eliminate them in cases where they cause pathology, will lay the groundwork for developing new treatments against infection, cancer, and autoimmune conditions.”

The Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences and Assistant Vice-Chancellor Health at the University of Melbourne, Professor Shitij Kapur, described Dr Mackay as an emerging leader among early career researchers.

“Like Howard Hughes – the businessman and film producer for whom the program is named – Laura is a huge talent.

“This recognises her outstanding potential in discovery science, and I will be excited to watch her work flourish with the support of this very significant award.”

Doherty Institute Director Professor Sharon Lewin said the award was a rare and exciting opportunity.

“Laura has demonstrated once again that she is one of the world’s very best scientists. This is no mean feat. I am looking forward to the great scientific mysteries she will solve with the freedom and support that comes from this award, it will allow her to ask and answer the most creative and difficult questions,” Professor Lewin said.

Dr Mackay is a previous winner of the Victorian Young Tall Poppy Science Award. She holds a Senior Lecturer position at The University of Melbourne and an adjunct appointment at the Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) in Singapore.

The International Research Scholars Program is an initiative established by the HHMI, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. The program targets outstanding early career scientists who have the potential to make groundbreaking contributions to science. In addition to financial support they will join the broader community of scientists supported by partner organisations.

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