Slobedman wins Sir Zelman Cowen prize

March 29, 2012 by  
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The 2012 Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund Prize for Medical Research has been awarded to Associate Professor Barry Slobedman, Discipline of Infectious Diseases & Immunology, University of Sydney and Centre for Virus Research, Westmead Millennium Institute.

Associate Professor Barry Slobedman

Viruses have evolved to penetrate human tissues, colonise our cells, and trick them into reproducing the virus, causing diseases which medical science has long studied, devising effective antiviral vaccines and drugs. One virus which still escapes all our defences is human cytomegalovirus (HCMV). It infects most humans, staying latent in our tissues and causing little disease, until our immunity is compromised, for example by the HIV virus or in transplant recipients. Then it can grow rapidly, and cause serious and sometimes fatal infections.

The prize has been awarded for the discovery of how the HCMV can persist in a latent state for the life of the human host.

HCMV is a herpes virus which infects most of the world’s population. After initial (primary) infection, the virus establishes a life-long dormant (latent) infection. Periodically, the virus can re-awaken (reactivate) from latency, to produce a new infectious virus. Frequently this results in life-threatening disease in immunocompromised individuals such as solid organ and bone marrow transplant recipients. Despite the critical importance of latency to HCMV disease, this phase of infection has remained extremely poorly understood.

As a virologist, A/Prof Slobedman has defined fundamental mechanisms which enable herpes viruses, particularly HCMV, to persist in a latent state. His work has resulted in the discovery of a viral homologue of the potent immunomodulatory cytokine human IL-10, which is expressed by latent HCMV. He has shown that this viral IL-10 gene functions during latency to make infected cells “invisible” to the T-cells which should recognise and destroy them. The virus thus actively evades detection during the latent phase of infection.

A/Prof Slobedman’s discovery provides a novel drug target for development of therapies to interrupt latency, and limit or prevent the devastating consequences of reactivation in immunocompromised individuals. It may lead to development of a live HCMV vaccine. Its potential for clinical applications has led to an international patent sponsored by Sydnovate, the commercialisation arm of the University of Sydney.

Managing Trustee of the Fund and Chairman of the Prize Assessment Committee, Prof Jonathan Stone, presenting the Committee’s recommendations to the Trustees of the Fund said, “In their consideration of this nomination, the Committee noted the strong impact this discovery has already had on the understanding of HCMV infections.”

The Prize, an award of $10,000 and a medal crafted by renowned Melbourne sculptor, Michael Meszaros, will be awarded to A/Prof Slobedman at a function to be held later in the year.

First presented at the University of Sydney in 2006, the Sir Zelman Cowen Universities Fund Prize for Medical Research, recognises discovery in medical research by a researcher under 45 years of age who has made a major contribution to the understanding or treatment of disease. The Prize is awarded in alternate years at the University of Sydney and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It is one of a number of Fund initiatives aiming to support medical research at the University of Sydney and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and to promote cooperative work between the two institutions. Established in 1978 by the late John Hammond, a Sydney businessman, the Fund currently supports collaborative scientific projects between the two Universities, a program of student and academic exchange, and the SZCUF Alzheimer’s Disease Research Grant, the recently established SZCUF BlueSky Research Grant as well as the Fund Prize for Medical Research.

Sir Zelman Cowen served as Governor General of Australia from 1977 to 1982 and was Patron of this Fund from 1997 to 2011 having also served as a Trustee (1992-1997). When the Fund was established in 1978 it was named in honour of his appointment as Governor General in the previous year.

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