Balzan Prize 2008 for Preventive Medicine, Including Vaccination
Interview with Ian Frazer – 25.10.2013
Ian Frazer is Research Director of the Translational Research Institute, Brisbane and Research Group Head, The University of Queensland Diamantina Institute.
Frazer was awarded the Balzan Prize for Preventive Medicine, including Vaccination, in 2008; his Balzan research project has just come to a close after five years.
He used the funds available from his 2008 Balzan Prize to support two fellowships. The two fellows were initially based with Frazer’s group at the University of Queensland in Brisbane and worked on individual projects in the frame of Professor Frazer’s program aimed at the development of a “therapeutic vaccine” against HPV- induced [Human Papilloma Virus] cervical cancer. They were given the opportunity to visit other labs in Australia and internationally as part of their research projects.
Balzan spoke with Frazer earlier this summer about his project and the monies from Balzan.
«I was quite surprised when I won the Balzan Foundation prize. I was not that familiar with the prize and here I was handed an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of young scientists» Frazer said.
Part of the by-laws of the Balzan Prize require the prizewinner to use halve of their monies to fund the work of a young researchers. Most monies for scientific research are linked to a specific outcome or project. Balzan also differs in that regard in that it doesn’t limit the areas that the prizewinners can fund.
What did you think when you won the prize?
«I was excited to be able to give back and the great opportunity that the prize gave me. My own research was already well-funded but I wanted to use the monies to help younger researchers» he said. «I have always liked to mentor younger scientists. In 1981 I was invited to study at the Institute in Australia, free of charge. I was a doctor in Scotland without any experience in the field I wanted to study but they gave me a chance to work on immunology and it charged my life» Frazer noted.
How did you find the researchers to give your money to in turn?
«I advertised that I was looking for post-docs who wanted a fellowship to come and work at the Institute – he said. Two post-doctoral students worked with me. They were given the opportunity to help to build an institution».
Dr. Steve Mattarollo is interested in a cell type that is an important piece of the process of identifying cancer. «We are currently in clinical trials. He spent a couple of years with me and then went to Melbourne to work with another scientist. Now he is back at our institution pursuing another important question about how blood cancers differ from skin cancers» Frazer noted.
Dr. Mattarollo has experience in the cellular mediators of innate immunity in cancer He was funded for two years to work in Melbourne, Australia with Professor Mark Smyth, an acknowledged world expert on the role of NKT cells in controlling cancer cell growth.
During the first two years as a Balzan Fellow, Mattarollo pursued two main lines of research: 1) Development of a therapeutic cancer vaccine against melanoma and non-hodgkins B cell lymphoma that induces innate and adaptive immunity by targeting the immune adjuvant properties of NKT cells. 2) Determining the immune constituents that are important for the therapeutic effectiveness of chemotherapies, and assessing combination chemo-immunotherapy strategies for treating solid tumours.
In May 2012 he returned to Brisbane to continue this research within Professor Frazer’s group.
What did your second researcher concentrate on with the monies from the Balzan Prize?
«Dr. Antje Blumenthal was the second post-doc to work with Balzan funding. She has extensive experience in studying the role of the innate immune system in chronic infections. She investigates how pathogens are recognized by the immune system, how appropriate inflammatory responses are initiated and regulated, and how this instructs T cell responses that are critical to control chronic infections».
Together with Professor Frazer she directs research that aims to understand mechanisms of immune suppression and cancer development in the skin and cervix.
The Balzan fellowship also supported the establishment of her own research program that includes investigations into how a novel class of immune molecules, the family of Wnt proteins shapes innate immune responses and regulates T cell functions. Her work addresses an important gap in understanding the functions of Wnt proteins as novel regulators of the type and strength of immune responses. These highly innovative research fields likely pioneer new concepts of mechanisms of immune regulation and hold the potential for the identification of novel therapeutic targets.
«The last five years have allowed us to study the Wnt proteins which until recently weren’t thought to have anything particularly noteworthy. For example people with TB [Tuberculosis]make these proteins at the right time. The monies allowed us to delve further into understanding these proteins,» Frazer said.
What do you make of the outcomes of the projects?
«I am delighted and because of the nature of taxation on prize monies, the money went further than it might have otherwise, Frazer noted.
Dr. Blumenthal is now establishing an independent research group and is currently supervising four Ph.D. students, a Research Assistant and undergraduate students. Since her relocation to Australia, she has already attracted more than $220.000 of additional research support».
Dr. Blumenthal has established strong collaborative ties within Professor Frazer ’s group, the UQ Diamantina Institute and within the University of Queensland.
Frazer’s project that concluded in June 2013 is exactly what the Balzan Foundation had in mind, furthering research among young scientists as well as recognizing the contributions made by the prizewinners themselves.
Professor Frazer’s research led to the development of a vaccine against the strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) that cause most cervical cancers.
What do you think of the Balzan Prizewinner 2013, Pascale Cossart’s research on infectious diseases? Are there any links to your research on Herpes and HPV?
«It’s great to see Dr Pascale Cossart receiving acknowledgement of the significance of her work on Listeria through receipt of the Balzan Prize. She works in an area which will become increasingly important in the 21st century, as understanding the basis of the ability of bacteria to cause disease, and how this ability can be transmitted from bug to bug, will help in the battle with micro-organisms that are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
The genital herpes vaccine is in Phase 1 clinical trial at present».
After the publication of Madonna King’s book “Ian Frazer. The man who saved a million lives”, has there be a surge of interest in your work? Has it had any impact on your daily research, now that many people know more about your story?
«Madonna King’s biography has certainly brought some attention to the story of the vaccine development and the challenges that my colleague Jian Zhou and I had to overcome not only to develop the vaccine, but also to ensure that people in the developing world benefit from the protection against cervical cancer offered by the vaccine».