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In pursuit of vaccines for malaria and rheumatic fever

Professor Michael Good AO

06 August 2010

Around one million people, mostly children, die from malaria every year. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations suffer from one of the highest published rates of rheumatic fever in the world.

In this Australia Fellowship podcast, Professor Michael Good AO of Griffith University discusses his research into developing vaccines for malaria and rheumatic fever, and how the Fellowship will allow his team to conduct clinical trials for both diseases.

Professor Good also speaks about the involvement of research students, from developing countries where malaria is a greater problem than it is in Australia. He believes that training next generation of researchers is an important obligation of any senior scientist.

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Transcript of podcast

Voice-over: Welcome to this National Health and Medical Research Council podcast. Our podcasts aim to keep you in touch with major health and medical research issues and the people who shape them.

Introduction: Hi, I’m Carolyn Norrie and I’m speaking to 2010 Australia Fellow Professor Michael Good of Griffith University. Hi Michael, congratulations on your award.

Prof Good: Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Can you tell me a bit about your area of research?

Prof Good: Yes, well I trained initially after my medical degree as an immunologist and I’ve always been interested in tropical and parasitic diseases, so then I went to work in America at one of the world’s-leading malarial laboratories, Louis Miller at the National Institute of Health, then came back to Australia and also continued my malaria research into vaccine development for malaria. And then started a new research project on a vaccine for rheumatic fever, and rheumatic heart disease, which is caused by the streptococcus germ. With the goal there being developing a vaccine for that organism and understanding the immune response to it.

Interviewer: And malaria and streptococcus A are particularly important in Australia?

Prof Good: Streptococcus A is particularly important in the sense that it causes rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease and our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population suffer the highest rate of that disease in the world. Worldwide, probably about five or six hundred thousand people die from the effects of streptococcus infection, including rheumatic heart disease, as a principal cause of death every year. Malaria of course, is not endemic in Australia any more and hasn’t been for many, many years, but about a thousand Australians acquire malaria while working or travelling overseas in the tropics. But worldwide it’s one of the biggest killers of children, if not the biggest killer of children, with about a million deaths annually. Again in poorer countries predominantly in Africa.

Interviewer: So you’re saying no vaccine at the moment, but where do you see all this research in both of those areas going during your Australia Fellowship?

Prof Good: Well the Australia Fellowship….I’ll be using the funding from that to undertake clinical trials. We have NHMRC funding from a Program Grant, which is undertaking some very basic research into the immune response to the malaria parasite and the streptococcus germ. Often that involves developing novel approaches and testing them in laboratory animals such as mice, or mapping regions of a protein which are recognised by immune affective cells. With the Australia Fellowship I’ll be using that funding to then take these ideas which have come to the top, from what we call the pre-clinical work - studies in mice for example, and put them into a phase one clinical trial, which is really a first in human approach. So I would hope in the space of the five-years of the Australia Fellowship to have completed two, if not three, phase one clinical trials for malaria and rheumatic fever.

Interviewer: It certainly would have a great impact on Australia’s health if we could get those moving along.

Prof Good: Indeed, as I said in Australia it’s mainly our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations who are suffering from the effects of ‘strep’ but indeed people in all walks of life, in all countries can get even recurrent tonsillitis caused by streptococcus and a vaccine for streptococcus would be beneficial there as well. And for malaria of course it would be very beneficial, not just for people in developing countries where it is a major problem of course, but also for people visiting those countries to work or to have holidays, to be able to know that they’re going there safe in the knowledge that they had a vaccine that was protecting them.

Interviewer: Now the work you’re doing is obviously quite diverse. Do you see it building research skills in Australia both with junior staff and also in areas related to implementation?

Prof Good: I do indeed and I think one of the novel aspects of this particular work is that it is focussing on these clinical trials. They’re so much more complex as you’d understand, than doing a vaccine study in a mouse, for example. One of the main issues of course in developing clinical trials for humans is safety. So we have to be, you know, 110 percent sure that what we’re administering and developing is entirely safe. That’s the first hurdle that we have to achieve. Then after that we can then focus on whether the vaccine is inducing an effective immune response. But to get there, because of the real stringency of safety, we have to go through all the proper channels that are governed by the regulatory authorities, the ethics committees, the TGA or the FDA in the USA and so forth. So that makes it time consuming, it makes it expensive, but at that same time we are bringing people through those ranks and they are learning on the job, so to speak, and they are quite important skills. Broader than just vaccines per se, but in clinical development in general those skills are very important and they’ll be very beneficial to Australia for many years to come for the people who train in this particular program.

Interviewer: Michael with the work you’re doing you work with students in developing this?

Prof Good: Yes, students have formed a very important part of my research ever since I’ve been really in the lab and given the diseases I work on, malaria and rheumatic fever, I’ve made a particular point of training students from the region, indeed students from Africa. So I’ve had about half a dozen students from developing countries, mostly from Thailand I might add, who have trained for PhD’s with me and gone back ultimately to senior positions in their own country. And I think this is an important obligation that we do have to train scientists in the region because if we’re going to be successful, ultimately in not just developing a vaccine but deploying it and having it tested in real situations, we have to hand that over to people in those countries who have expertise and entrust them to do it. So I think it makes sense. There’s some very, very bright students who I’ve had from Thailand - I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed to have them studying with me - and of course they become life long colleagues and not just important for me but I think they become great diplomats for Australia, as well of course when they go back to their own country. So I think it’s a wonderful tradition that we can train not only our own Australian students, which of course we do, but also students from countries where these diseases are endemic.

Interviewer: Professor Michael Good thank you for speaking to us today.

Prof Good: Thanks Carolyn.

Voice-over: This podcast was brought to you by the National Health and Medical Research Council, working to build a healthy Australia. You’ll find more information about this and other health and medical research issues on our website, at www.nhmrc.gov.au.

Page reviewed: 20 June, 2011