In recognition of his outstanding contribution to the science of parasitology, that includes both public education and vaccine development, Professor Smith was awarded the Bancroft-Mackerras Medal for Excellence at the recent Australian Society for Parasitology 2018 conference in Melbourne.
Professor Smith, who returned to UTS in 2018 to lead the Biology and Biotechnology discipline in the Faculty of Science, helped establish the Australian Network for Parasitology, bringing together over 400 researchers from 30 Australian universities and research institutes.
“Although Australia has an excellent history of parasitology research the establishment of this network with ARC and NHMRC funding in 2004 was significant recognition of the burden of parasites in both human and agricultural terms and for the need to focus on understanding them and developing new ways to control them,” Professor Smith says.
Professor Smith says that previous research to help develop a vaccine against Eimeria - the most common and costly disease of the poultry industry - shows how vital collaboration is at national and international levels including with industry.
This previous work has informed and inspired efforts on another microscopic protozoan parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, that Professor Smith and an international team of researchers are now honing in on. This is where cat lovers might want to look away, but shouldn’t.
Toxoplasma gondii is one of the world’s most damaging animal to human infections, affecting around 30% of the world’s population. For most, it is harmless, but it can cause serious disease including encephalitis, abortion, stillbirth, hearing and sight loss, and mental disorders. It is transmitted by cats, and finds its way into our food chain via infected meat and contaminated water.
“Toxoplasma has a complex lifecycle but sexual reproduction of Toxoplasma occurs only in cat intestines. All human infections result directly or indirectly from a cat shedding oocysts, the egg-like stage of the organism, in its faeces, into the environment,“ Professor Smith says.
Oocysts contaminate soil, crops and water. Sheep, cattle, pigs and chickens get infected by eating grass or grain, or drinking water that has been contaminated with oocysts. The parasite spreads and stays for the life of the host inside cysts in brain and muscle cells.
Thanks to the latest genetic technologies, Professor Smith and his colleagues have discovered that Toxoplasma produces a unique suite of proteins during its development in cats, these proteins are potential targets for a vaccine that blocks oocyst shedding.
“Next steps include testing combinations of these proteins to immunise cats and prove that we can develop a vaccine that blocks transmission of this highly significant parasitic disease,” Professor Smith says.
"I feel incredibly humbled, almost embarrassed to win this award not just because taking a place beside the past winners, all of whom are superb parasitologists, is a bit daunting but because of other great and inspiring parasitologists, who I’ve admired so much over the years, who have been under-recognised,” he says.
Professor Una Ryan, the current President of the Australian Society for Parasitology says the Bancroft-Mackerras Medal is only presented when "a suitable candidate is recognised".
"Professor Smith was an extremely worthy recipient of the medal because of his major contributions to parasitology in several areas. These include his tireless efforts to create a cohesive national research focus for parasitology and promote our outstanding young researchers as well as his own research on developing vaccines to block transmission of important parasites. His Bancroft Mackerras Medal oration demonstrated the elegant and cutting-edge research that he is well known for and the Australian Society for Parasitology is very grateful for his continuing and outstanding contributions to parasitology.”
Key current funders for Professor Smith's work include The Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation and the NHMRC. Previous important funders were Bellberry Ltd and the Driving Biological Discoveries Scheme of the National Institutes of Health, USA.