Prof Laura Mackay awarded Jian Zhou Medal for significant contribution to medical science

In acknowledgement of her groundbreaking work in immunology, Professor Laura Mackay, Dept of Microbiology & Immunology and Peter Doherty Institute, was awarded the 2023 Jian Zhou Medal by the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences.

Named in honour of Professor Jian Zhou who co-invented the cervical cancer vaccine, the Medal is awarded annually by the AAHMS to rising stars in Australian health and medical science, in recognition of their impact in translational medical research.

Professor Mackay is an internationally recognised immunologist who has been at the forefront of research into tissue-resident memory T cells since her discovery over a decade ago.

Researchers have long set their sights on reprogramming specific T cells in the blood as a possible saviour for many hard-to-treat diseases. Professor Mackay discovered that they were looking in the wrong place.

In a series of landmark studies, she found that a unique type of T cell exists in the skin, gut and other barrier tissues. She showed that these T cells are first responders, mounting a fast and effective immune response at the specific site of the infection.

“It was a real shift in thinking, because for a long time people thought that the T cells they were finding in tissues were just passers-by caught up in tissues,” she said.

On comparing T cells in the blood versus T cells in tissues, we found that the genes and signals that control the survival of T cells in tissues is different, and we found that these T cells in tissues were more protective against infection and tumours.

Today, thousands of researchers around the world are studying these Tissue-Resident Memory T cells (TRM cells). Professor Mackay and her team are now developing new strategies to boost the number of TRM cells and super-charge their protective power to clear infections and diseases, such as breast cancer and melanoma.

Jian Zhou Medal selection committee chair Professor Ian Frazer AC said, “Professor Mackay’s discovery of Tissue-Resident Memory T cells illustrates the importance of fundamental research in advancing medicine.”

Learn more about Professor Laura Mackay
Learn more about the Mackay Laboratory

This article was originally published on 7 September 2023 by the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection & Immunity.

The Doherty Institute is a joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital.