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Leann Tilley, La Trobe University, is the 2010 recipient of The Bancroft-Mackerras Medal

August 2010

The Bancroft-Mackerras Medal for Excellence allows the Australian Society for Parasitology to recognise outstanding contributions of its members to the science of Parasitology. The Medal commemorates the contribution of the Bancroft-Mackerras dynasty to the development of the discipline of Parasitology in Australia from the 1860s to 1960s.

The Bancroft family made great contribution to Australian science, studying public health, insect-borne disease and parasitology amongst many other areas of medical and biological science. They were devoted to studying parasites, including blood parasites. Joseph Bancroft and his son Thomas practiced medicine in Queensland in addition to their scientific pursuits. Joseph’s daughter, Josephine Bancroft, was the first member of their family to have a professional career as a scientist and she married fellow scientist, Ian Mackerras.
Leann feels a special kinship with the Bancrofts and Mackerrases.  She quotes L Doherty (Med. J. Aust., 1978, 2: 560-3, 591-4): “Josephine and Ian Mackerras were using microscopes to good effect to study parasites. During their University years Ian and Jo often fished off North Head, making smears from the heart blood of their catches. They carried the fish home after sailing, and one cooked them, while the other stained the smears. After supper they would settle down at their microscopes, and search the smears for Haematozoa.”

Leann’s passion is a modern day version of this – she works with high end imaging equipment and specialist technology to study the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum  - the most deadly human parasite with approximately 300 x 106 cases per year and 0.9 x 106 deaths per year, mostly in children under the age of 5.

Leann studied Biochemistry at Melbourne University, and did her PhD on red blood cells. Working on malaria is an obvious progression after working on red blood cells and Leann collaborated with Robin Anders who was initially based at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. Together with Mick Foley, they were interested in the interaction of the parasite with the red blood cell cytoskeleton. After working in Sydney and doing post doctoral work overseas, Leann moved to La Trobe University and is still there, now Deputy Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-Ray Science and Director of Research for the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science. Mick and Robin also moved to La Trobe and the three have continued their collaborative work. Leann says she has always been interested in science, but also enjoys visual arts and she feels like she brings the two together in her imaging work on the malaria parasite.

Leann says she really enjoys the collaborative aspect of physicists and biologists talking to each other and generating new ideas and approaches to look at an important biological question as stated by Richard Feynman, Nobel prize winning American physicist in a talk at an American Physical Society meeting on December 29th 1959, “It is very easy to answer many of these fundamental biological questions; you just look at the thing!

Leann says she is thrilled with what she is able to see using the new imaging methods and sees it as a new approach for looking at, and understanding parasites. “It is like having a molecular paintbox,” says Leann. “Molecular beacons and fluorescent probes can paint different parts of the cell and show how the organelles interact with each other and their environment.”
Leann’s research looks at protein trafficking – specifically, the trafficking of proteins to the outside of the red blood cell membrane, which is what causes the disease pathology of malaria. The exomembrane system is bizarre and very different from other trafficking systems. Leann says that, “Once a parasite gets inside a red blood cell it starts renovating; it starts from scratch as there is nothing inside and it needs to have a way of moving proteins around. This is where the Maurer’s clefts come in. They are like an extracellular Golgi apparatus.”

Initially scientists thought that Maurer’s clefts were a continuous structure that can move things from the parasite all the way to the red blood cell surface but Leann says that, “When you look using the latest, most sophisticated imaging techniques you see that it’s not a continuous structure at all. It looks more like some sort of vesicle-mediated trafficking system.”
Another thing that Leann would like to do is to start applying these fantastic imaging technologies to study antimalarial drug resistance. Leann says it is critically important to preserve the antimalarial drugs that we have and, therefore, critical to understand why the parasites are becoming resistant. Drug resistance to chloroquine began emerging around the world in the 1980s and, now, artemisinin resistance has emerged in the same areas near the Cambodian border. Leann says that, “If artemisinin resistance takes hold, it will be a major step backwards in the fight to eliminate malaria.”

Leann is the first female to be awarded the Bancroft-Mackerras Medal and is a great role model for women in science. Leann said, “It’s exciting times for women in science with Liz Blackburn winning the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 this year and Suzanne Corey, who was director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research from 1996 until 2009 about to become the first elected woman president of the Australian Academy of Science. There are good women in high level positions which is great for younger women in science.”

Leann acknowledges her own mentors through her career and the fabulous team of people she has worked with over the years. She admired Bill Sawyer’s work, as a biochemist at the University of Melbourne, especially his quantitative approach to research. He introduced her to fluorescence work which later progressed to imaging. She is also grateful to Nick Hoogenraad at La Trobe University who has always been very supportive of her career and research directions.

Being awarded the Bancroft-Mackerras Medal makes Leann feel most proud. “It is a good feeling to be acknowledged for your life time of research work. It always feels like things are going slowly, like you’re pushing a rock up a mountain. I’m very excited and pleased – it is a wonderful thing and I feel honoured to be included in such a great group of people – it’s a real boost to be recognised that way.” Leann’s award has attracted a lot of publicity (The Age Education section featured Leann recently and this is great for malaria and parasitology research, more generally. And, as Leann says, “Awards like the Bancroft-Mackerras Medal inspire people around you; so many people are genuinely pleased! I am very proud to be recognised for doing something I’ve always enjoyed doing.”