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07 Sep 2023

Preeminent immunologist Professor Laura Mackay receives Jian Zhou Medal for significant contributions to science

In acknowledgement of her groundbreaking work in immunology, the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences (AAHMS) is awarding the 2023 Jian Zhou Medal to University of Melbourne Professor Laura Mackay, Laboratory Head and co-Lead of the Immunology theme at the Doherty Institute, and Fellow of the Academy. 

Named in honour of Professor Jian Zhou who coinvented the cervical cancer vaccine, the Medal is awarded annually by the AAHMS to rising stars in Australian health and medical science, in recognition of their impact in translational medical research. 

Professor Mackay is an internationally-recognised immunologist who has been at the forefront of research into tissue-resident memory T cells, since her discovery over a decade ago. 

Researchers have long set their sights on reprogramming specific T cells in the blood as a possible saviour for many hard-to-treat diseases. Professor Mackay discovered that they were looking in the wrong place. 

In a series of landmark studies, she found that a unique type of T cell exists in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues. She showed that these T cells are first responders, mounting a fast and effective immune response at the specific site of the infection. 

“It was a real shift in thinking, because for a long time people thought that the T cells they were finding in tissues were just passers-by caught up in tissues,” she said. 

“On comparing T cells in the blood versus T cells in tissues, we found that the genes and signals that control the survival of T cells in tissues is different, and we found that these T cells in tissues were more protective against infection and tumours.” 

Today, thousands of researchers around the world are studying these Tissue-Resident Memory T cells (TRM cells). Professor Mackay and her team are now developing new strategies to boost the number of TRM cells and super-charge their protective power to clear infections and diseases, such as breast cancer and melanoma. 

“We’re also working on the other side of the coin, where these T cells can go rogue, leading to skin autoimmune conditions such as vitiligo, alopecia aerata and psoriasis,” she said. 

University of Melbourne Laureate Professor Sharon Lewin, Director of the Doherty Institute, congratulated Professor Mackay on her achievements. 

“I am delighted to see one of our researchers honoured with this Medal. Laura is an exceptional researcher who, together with her team, is advancing knowledge in the field of immunology,” she said. 

“Her pioneering work has fundamentally reshaped our understanding of how the immune system responds to viruses. I am confident that her research will not only transform the way we design vaccines but also lead to innovative strategies for the treatment of various diseases. This Medal serves as a recognition that Laura’s research is poised to have a profound and lasting impact on science and medicine.” 

Jian Zhou Medal selection committee chair Professor Ian Frazer AC said, “Professor Mackay’s discovery of Tissue-Resident Memory T cells illustrates the importance of fundamental research in advancing medicine.” 

Professor David Ziegler, Pediatric Oncologist at the Sydney Children’s Hospital is receiving the Medal alongside Professor Mackay for his research on treatment of cancer in children. He is leading the development of the national Zero Childhood Cancer (ZERO) project – to give every child with cancer the best chance of effective treatment.