Several game-changing University of Melbourne researchers and their teams have been named finalists in the 2023 Eureka Prizes.
Eureka Prizes – awarded by the Australian Museum – are Australia's most comprehensive national science awards, honouring excellence across the areas of research and innovation, leadership, science engagement and school science. The Prizes bring together members of Australia’s science research community from universities, major institutes and government.
Melbourne finalists this year include:
PROFESSOR DAVID NISBET – SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH
Professor Nisbet, Director of the University of Melbourne’s Graeme Clark Institute, and Professor Tricoli have been recognised for their research into understanding how bacteria and viruses contaminate surfaces, which led to the development of a first-of-its-kind sprayable coating to shield objects from pathogens.
The coating provides a reliable alternative to standard disinfectants, which are becoming less effective and require regular reapplication, and is the only permanent surface layer proven to protect surfaces from contamination by viruses.
“To be considered for the Eureka Prize is an immense honour and humbling experience for me. It is proof of my colleagues' and mentors' outstanding cooperation and support as they have helped me along the way,” Professor Nisbet says.
“We can make hospitals, public areas, and even our own homes safer thanks to our cutting-edge technologies and creative ideas.”
Professor Tricoli says he was very humbled and excited that the research is being considered for a Eureka award.
“This has only been possible through the collaboration and efforts of a large number of PhD students, research fellows and colleagues that have devoted their time to advance our knowledge and counter an increasingly important biosecurity risk.”
They are now working on the rollout of these technologies to mitigate the spread of future superbugs.
MIXOMICS – RESEARCH SOFTWARE
A team led by Professor Kim-Anh Lê Cao from the School of Mathematics and Statistics has been nominated for their software MixOmics, which is nominated for the Australian Research Data Commons Eureka Prize for Excellence in Research Software.
Created by statisticians, bioinformaticians and computational biologists, mixOmics is a statistical toolkit that gives researchers across academia and industry the ability to analyse large, complex datasets from cutting-edge biotechnologies. The software allows scientists to integrate data from a wide range of sources into a single, unified view, helping them make significant medical and biological discoveries.
Professor Lê Cao says for more than 15 years her team has been pioneering statistical methods to combine different types of biological data, and extract meaningful information from the large datasets generated by modern sequencing technologies.
"We work at the interface between biology and statistics to tackle these modern challenges," Professor Lê Cao says.
And two teams from the Doherty Institute have been nominated for the Australian Infectious Diseases Research Centre Eureka Prize for Infectious Diseases Research, which highlights projects that benefit, or have the potential to benefit, human health.
THE CORONA QUEENS – INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH
Professor Katherine Kedzierska, Head of the Human T cell Laboratory, together with Dr Oanh Nguyen, a Senior Research Fellow and Dr Louise Rowntree, a Postdoctoral Researcher investigate immune responses in high-risk groups – including children, the elderly, pregnant women and cancer patients. Their research has accelerated global research into infection and vaccination.
“Since pre-COVID-19, as part of our influenza research program, my team has been researching immunity to viral infections and vaccinations,” Professor Kedzierska says.
“We want our work to help design better, more effective vaccines against infection and believe vaccines should induce a breadth of immune responses, including antibodies and killer T cell responses.
“Our work focusses on high-risk groups who are vulnerable to severe illness. This includes young children, the elderly, pregnant women and cancer patients. Through our research, we found that COVID-19 vaccination was very effective at generating killer T cell responses, as well as antibody responses.
“Importantly, we discovered that blood cancer patients, who are immunosuppressed and cannot generate any antibodies, generate strong T cell immunity against SARS-CoV-2 after vaccination. This finding provides key insights for future immunisation strategies with vaccines such as influenza, which predominantly induce B cell immune responses.”
IMMUNITY TO COVID – INFECTIOUS DISEASE RESEARCH
A team of researchers co-led by University of Melbourne Professor Stephen Kent, Lab Head, Infectious Diseases Physician and Virologist at the Doherty Institute, and Professor Miles Davenport, Program Head of the Infection Analytics Program at the Kirby Institute, UNSW, have been selected for their discoveries on the role of antibodies in combating COVID-19.
Their insights – derived from integrating in-depth virological and immunological studies with mathematical modelling – shaped global vaccination policies and accelerated vaccine distribution. Their unique approach also offers a new method for future infectious disease research.
“Our team worked collaboratively on understanding immunity to COVID-19. We had a Eureka moment in 2021 when we found that the amount of antibody induced by a vaccine was strongly linked to how effective the vaccine was,” Professor Kent said.
“However, we found this immunity declines over time and isn’t as good against new strains of the virus. Our findings helped guide government policy on how best to use COVID-19 vaccines both in Australia and around the world. This allowed wide distribution of the vaccines, saving many lives.
Professor Davenport said the pandemic presented an enormous challenge to the infectious diseases and immunology communities.
“The response was one of great cooperation, collaboration, and innovation between research groups,” he said. “Our team was fortunate that our combination of experimental and mathematical skills was able to contribute to understanding immunity and vaccine effectiveness for COVID-19.”
Members of this team also include University of Melbourne immunologists Dr Jennifer Juno and Dr Adam Wheatley from the Doherty Institute, along with Kirby Institute researchers Associate Professor Deborah Cromer and Dr David Khoury.
JO CHANDLER– SCIENCE JOURNALISM
Her longform essay Buried Treasure follows the most ambitious Australian Antarctic endeavour in a generation. The award-winning journalist had tracked the story for over a decade before pitching her article, which skilfully navigates urgent questions about science, our heating planet and the human condition. Buried Treasure was published in the Griffith Review.
Winners will be announced at the award ceremony on 23 August.
All videos courtesy Australian Museum with researcher contributions.
First published on 19 July 2023.
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