Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham wins 2018 David Syme Research Prize

Associate Professor Wai-Hong Tham has been awarded the 2018 David Syme Research Prize - one of Australia’s oldest annual research awards - for her work towards a malaria vaccine.

Associate Professor Tham leads a research lab at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, where she works on understanding the biology of malaria parasite infection of the human red blood cells and how the knowledge can be harnessed to design novel therapeutics against malaria.

The David Syme Research Prize is awarded annually to the best original research in biology, physics, chemistry or geology produced in Australia during the preceding two years.

“Wai-Hong is an innovative and productive group leader at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, and is respected by her team members and colleagues,” said Institute director, Professor Doug Hilton.

“Her research is taking significant strides towards the common goal of global eradication of malaria.”

Associate Professor Tham was presented the David Syme Research Prize by Professor Aleks Owzcarek, acting Dean of Science, University of Melbourne, at a lunch at University House on 13 September 2018.

In the past five years, Associate Professor Tham has published 14 primary research papers in high impact journals, and was senior author on papers in Nature, Science and PNAS. Her research has resulted in a deeper understanding of the molecular and structural mechanisms utilised by malaria parasites to invade red blood cells and of parasite evasion strategies to circumvent host responses.

Associate Professor Tham has successfully contributed to the understanding of how Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, the two most deadly malaria parasites that infect humans, enter blood cells and suppress the immune system. Her group has developed antibodies and inhibitors that block parasite invasion and driven preclinical development of novel vaccine candidates.

In the last two years, Associate Professor Tham has made major inroads in understanding how malaria parasites enter the youngest of human red cells and how they evade the human immune system. She made key contributions to the identification of a new P. vivax receptor and determined the first atomic resolution structures of the red blood cell binding domains from a P. vivax reticulocyte-binding protein and when bound to its cognate receptor.

Professor Karen Day, Dean of Science at the University of Melbourne and herself a malaria researcher, said that Associate Professor Tham was an outstanding researcher and worthy recipient of the David Syme Research Prize.

“Malaria is a devastating disease that causes around half a million deaths every year,” said Professor Day.

“Our ultimate goal is to eliminate malaria for good, and it is clear that an effective vaccine is one of our most promising pathways to success. Associate Professor Tham is making a major contribution on this front.”

The David Syme Research Prize was first awarded in 1906, following a donation from Mr David Syme in 1904 to the University of Melbourne, and awards original research of value in the industrial and commercial interests of Australia.