Malaria and immunology researchers win Burnet Prize

WEHI scientists Dr Rhea Longley and Dr Cyril Seillet have been jointly awarded the 2020 Burnet Prize, the institute’s highest scientific honour.

Dr Cyril Seillet and Dr Rhea Longley are joint winners of

the 2020 Burnet Prize, WEHI’s highest scientific honour.

The prize recognises the researchers’ recent discoveries about the immune system and how it responds to infections. Dr Longley’s research focusses on using immune responses to detect malaria infections, while Dr Seillet studies a type of immune cell found at lung and gut surfaces, which can prevent infection and regulate inflammation.

At a glance

  • WEHI’s 2020 Burnet Prize has been jointly awarded to Dr Rhea Longley and Dr Cyril Seillet, in recognition of their pioneering research.
  • Dr Longley’s research has revealed a new approach to detect dormant ‘vivax’ malaria infections, an important step towards better malaria surveillance and elimination in the Asia-Pacific region.
  • Dr Seillet studies a cell at the front-line of our immune defences, and has discovered how these cells interact with our nervous system to respond to a range of environmental triggers.

New approach to combat malaria

‘Vivax’ malaria is a parasitic disease that is prevalent in many parts of South East Asia and the Pacific, and is particularly challenging to control, said Dr Longley.

“The parasite can hide in a dormant state in the liver, reawakening months later and causing sickness as well spreading to other people in a community,” she said. “There is currently no way to detect dormant parasites. This is a major obstacle for malaria surveillance and the implementation of successful elimination strategies.”

To overcome the challenges of detecting dormant malaria parasites, Dr Longley’s research has discovered immunological ‘hints’ of the body’s response to them. “I identified specific antibody responses that reflect recent exposure to the parasite. People with this ‘serological signature’ are likely to be carrying dormant parasites, and – once identified – can be treated with antimalarial drugs that break the transmission cycle. This discovery has the potential to allow vivax malaria to be tracked and eliminated from communities,” she said.

Strong collaborations have been essential to Dr Longley’s research. “I feel privileged to be part of a highly talented international team on this project – including working for two years at Mahidol University, Thailand, under a joint-appointment with WEHI.

“It has been really exciting to see my research applied to malaria elimination scenarios, and to begin translation of our findings by partnering with biotechnology companies to develop a field-deployable test,” Dr Longley said.

Understanding front-line immune cells

Dr Seillet’s research focusses on understanding cells at the front line of our immune defences, called ‘group 3 innate lymphoid cells’ (ILC3). These are found in the linings of the gut and lung, where they can initiate and control inflammation and maintain the integrity of these surfaces to prevent infections entering our body.

Dr Seillet said ILC3 were critical both for protecting our bodies against infection, but also for preventing harmful inflammation that occurs in conditions such as inflammatory bowel diseases. “It is critical that these cells respond appropriately to changes happening in the environment as well as within the gut and lungs,” he said.

“My recent research has revealed new details about how ILC3 function and that the behaviour of these cells changes depending on whether it is day or night. I discovered that after eating, our nervous system instructs the ILC3 to increase their activity which protects the gut against pathogens and preserves its health. Interestingly, when the nervous system could not communicate with the ILC3, the gut became susceptible to unwanted inflammation. This suggests that the immunity in the gut ramps up in anticipation of food coming in the gut, a time at which there is a potentially increased risk of infection. These findings have provided vital clues about how our environment and behaviour influences both our vulnerability to infection as well as to inflammatory diseases.”

Dr Seillet said WEHI had provided him with a great environment to progress his research. “I have relied on access to advanced research technologies, including single cell sequencing and the latest imaging equipment. My discoveries have only been possible by working closely with many amazingly skilled people at WEHI,” he said.

Celebrating scientific excellence

WEHI director Professor Doug Hilton said Dr Longley and Dr Seillet were accomplished scientists and truly deserving of the Burnet Prize.

“This is the 34th year the award has been presented, and the past awardee list includes many people who continue to make enormous impacts on medical research and health.

“I am very confident that Rhea and Cyril will be among these, continuing to make important medical research discoveries throughout their careers,” Professor Hilton said.

Dr Longley and Dr Seillet are both supported by fellowships from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

The Burnet Prize is awarded annually to early-career scientists at WEHI who have produced pioneering research. It was established in 1987 from a bequest of former WEHI director Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet.

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