2013 University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Scientific Research

Vitamin B reveals the role of mystery gut immune cells. And serves as an early warning of gut infection.

An accidental discovery by Melbourne researchers has revealed the purpose of ‘mystery’ immune cells in the gut, shown how our immune system interacts with the complex bacteria ecology in our gut, and opened new paths for drug discovery. 
The team, from the University of Melbourne and Monash University have won the 2013 Australian Museum University of New South Wales Eureka Prize for Scientific Research.

“This discovery of a previously unknown function of the immune system opens up possibilities for new treatments or vaccines for conditions as diverse as tuberculosis and irritable bowel syndrome,” Frank Howarth, Director of the Australian Museum said.

“In the spirit of Pasteur, the team exploited an accidental discovery to reveal a new paradigm for how our immune system can function,” he said.

The team—Dr Lars Kjer-Nielsen, Professors James McCluskey, and Jamie Rossjohn—beat international competitors to figure out what activates ‘mucosal associated invariant T cells’, a recently discovered gut-dwelling type of immune system cell. These immune cells are widespread but until now were a bit of a mystery.

The team’s discovery came about partly by happy accident, when they noticed that a protein from these immune cells only formed properly in the presence of by-products of vitamin B. These by-products are formed by a wide range of invasive bacteria and yeast. It became clear that these vitamin B metabolites were providing early warning to our immune system. 

The research opens up new opportunities to understand the role of the ‘microbiota’ in our gut in regulating human health and disease.

The two other finalists for the prize were chosen for the discovery of unexplained dwarf galaxies and a possible pill to protect against muscular dystrophy.

Professor Geraint Lewis of the University of Sydney and Dr Anthony Conn of Macquarie University and University of Sydney discovered an unexpected dance of dwarf galaxies around our nearest cosmic neighbour, the Andromeda Galaxy, challenging current theories of dark matter and cosmology.

Professor Gordon Lynch of the University of Melbourne and Professor Mark Febbraio of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute demonstrated that the diabetes drug BGP-15 slows progression of the deadly childhood muscle-wasting disease, Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research and innovation, leadership and commercialisation, science journalism and communication, and school science. This year the 17 sponsored prizes include awards for agriculture, defence, infectious diseases and innovative use of technology.

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Kea Lambert , Project Officer, Eureka Prizes
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