The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital


19 Dec 2023

$1.7 million funding boosts skin disease research at the Doherty Institute

University of Melbourne’s Professor Laura Mackay, Laboratory Head and Immunology Theme Leader at the Doherty Institute, and the University of Melbourne’s Associate Professor Sarah Dunstan, Principal Research Fellow in Infectious Diseases and a Lead of the Global Health Cross-Cutting Discipline at the Doherty Institute, have been awarded research grants from the LEO Foundation. They have secured a combined 7.8 million Danish Krone (AU$1.7 million) to advance research in skin diseases, in particular to unravel the complexity of the T cell populations in the skin and to study the bacteria causing leprosy.  

University of Melbourne’s Professor Paul Gorry, Deputy Director at the Doherty Institute, said the grants would augment the great work done by the two researchers and their teams in immunology and infectious diseases.  

“We congratulate our researchers for this well-deserved support from the LEO Foundation. This funding will propel scientific discovery in skin diseases that affect millions of people worldwide. This will contribute to fostering a future where treatment decisions are guided by cutting-edge research,” said Professor Gorry.  

Established in 1984, the LEO Foundation is one of Denmark’s most prominent commercial foundations, which owns the pharmaceutical company LEO Pharma. The foundation offers philanthropic, competitive grants to support the best international research in skin diseases.  

More about the funded research projects

Unravelling the diversity and function of skin-resident T cells, Professor Mackay (AU$838,000) 

Professor Mackay leads a research lab dedicated to investigating the variations in development and function of tissue-resident memory T (TRM) cells, a type of immune cell, across body surfaces exposed to different environmental factors. 

Specifically, the team are keen to understand the differences in skin TRM cells throughout the body, considering factors like sun exposure and hair follicle density. They aim to identify molecules that improve the function and survival of these skin TRM cells, potentially preventing diseases in healthy skin. 

Professor Mackay has previously shown that distinct groups of skin TRM cells in mice use different molecular mechanisms for optimal functioning. However, knowledge about how human skin TRM  cells form and regulate responses to infections and inflammatory disorders is still limited. 

“In essence, our goal is to acquire crucial, novel insights into the control of skin immunity and its balance. This understanding is central to advancing the development of treatments and immunotherapies that leverage T cell immunity for addressing skin disorders,” said Professor Mackay. 

Professor Mackay won the Asia Pacific LEO Foundation Award earlier this year. 


Accelerating to Zero Transmission of Leprosy in Nepal (ACCELERATE) (AU$876,000) 

Associate Professor Dunstan’s project aims to conduct whole-genome sequencing of the bacteria responsible for leprosy, Mycobacterium leprae, in specific regions of Nepal. The insights gained from this research will enhance interventions for diagnosis, treatment, and vaccine strategies and establish a solid framework to achieve the goal of zero transmission.   

Professor Dunstan said although treatable and preventable, leprosy is a neglected tropical skin disease affecting more than 200,000 people globally per year in more than 120 countries, leaving a devasting impact of severe stigmatisation, prolonged disability and mental health challenges.  

“Achieving a leprosy-free world requires a deeper understanding of the disease's pathophysiology, transmission, and the development of effective strategies for prevention and cure,” said Associate Professor Dunstan.    

With a focus on two Nepali districts with a high incidence of leprosy and significant multidimensional poverty, genomic epidemiology will be employed to identify subtypes of M. leprae, linking them to individual patients, disease transmission patterns and the emergence of drug resistance. Working in collaboration with our partners in Nepal, led by Dr Maxine Caws and Mr Raghu Dhital from Birat Nepal Medical Trust, a network of community health workers will actively search for leprosy cases. Mathematical models will refine case-finding strategies, forming the foundation for stakeholder engagement and shaping evidence-based policy revisions in the national leprosy strategic plan.  

Associate Professor Dunstan has worked extensively on the genomics of enteric fever, tuberculosis and malaria. Now, she has expanded her scope of work in the pathogen genomics of infectious disease to include leprosy.    

More about the LEO Foundation Grantees here.