Victorian researcher uses innovation award to help fight childhood asthma

Read how one veski award winner is aiming to help prevent asthma in children.

The veski innovation fellowship is open to researchers and scientists in the fields of science and innovative technology. Offering a generous financial sum to undertake research in Victoria, it can transform careers and lead to medical advances.

Professor Ben Marsland, an immunologist who leads the Respiratory Immunology Laboratory at Monash University, can vouch for the fellowship’s influence.

He’s using the $150,000 prize over three years (matched in kind by Monash University) to employ a post-doctoral scientist, who will focus on discovering how microbes combat or prevent the development of allergies in babies, which can lead to life-threatening asthma. By reducing the incidence of allergies on the skin in infancy, Ben and his team are hoping to prevent children becoming allergic. This may reduce their chance of developing asthma in later life.

It’s vital work. Australia, after all, has one of the highest levels of allergies in the world and childhood asthma is nothing short of an epidemic. One in 10 children in Australia suffer from it, and there’s currently no cure.

In laboratory terms, Ben is examining how bugs interact with our immune system. "Our bodies are colonised with bugs called microbes," he explains. "We’re starting to understand how these microbes educate our immune system, especially early in life; and our research is working towards harnessing the power of these bugs to instruct the immune system to ignore particles such as pollen that cause asthma. In this way, we hope to find preventative strategies to avoid the development of asthma."

The first of his team’s key research conundrums involves finding out exactly at what age infants are most receptive to strategies to tackle asthma. Ben believes there’s a specific period of time in the first year of life during which infants respond best to preventative action.Young boy inhaling from an asthma inhaler.

The second involves moving the research beyond microbes to focus on the products (metabolites) that they produce. "Maybe in the future we can forget about the bacteria themselves," says Ben, "and just formulate medicines with the metabolites they produce."

A New Zealander who has spent years researching childhood asthma in Switzerland, Ben had just been lured to Monash University to be part of "one of the best centres for immunology in the world" before he won the veski award. As winners are typically in the top five per cent of their fields, he’s now a member of an elite club.

"I couldn’t have hoped for a better start in Victoria," he says. "Becoming part of the veski family not only provides financial support for our research, but opens a network of some of the most innovative, influential scientists in the region. Part of the profile the veski judges were looking for was someone with experience in bridging fundamental research and industry. While in Switzerland I co-founded two biotech start-ups and worked closely in early-stage R&D, which was likely to be a helpful differentiator that strengthened my application."

For other scientists and researchers who want to move beyond fundamental discoveries and towards treatments that help patients, Ben offers up the following: "Be passionate about what you’re doing and make sure you’re very clear on why you’re doing it."

Veski innovation fellowships

Veski’s innovation fellowship aims to connect, support and inspire the people and communities that grow Australia’s innovation culture. Find out more on the veski website.