Royal Society recognises fungal infection researcher

07 May 2020
07 May 2020

The Royal Society, the oldest observed scientific academy, is an expansive Fellowship of the world’s most eminent scientists. And Adjunct Member of the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM), Prof Gordon Brown, has been elected as a Fellow.

In late April the Royal Society
named over 60 scientists who are recognised the world over for their “outstanding contributions to scientific understanding” as Fellows and Foreign Members of the society. Representation includes researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Israel, Sweden and Australia. These high-flyers, including six Nobel laureates and academics, are recognised as leaders in their fields. Brown is no exception; his research focuses on understanding how the body’s immune system detects pathogens.

Prof Gordon Brown, Director of the AFGrica Unit.

“I discovered a family of molecules on the surface of immune cells, called C-type lectin receptors (CLRs), that play an essential role in recognising pathogens and transmitting this information into the cell so it can react appropriately.” The cellular responses induced by the CLRs are necessary to enable the immune response to control many pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and parasites. “My primary focus has been on understanding the role these molecules play in the control of fungal diseases. In fact, these receptors turn out to be essential for the control of fungal infections.”  

Brown has a long history with the IDM. Back in the early 2000s he met Profs Ed Rybicki and Anna-Lise Williamson. The two mentioned the creation of a centre of excellence, led by Emeritus Prof Wieland Gevers. Gevers was responsible for the establishment of the IDM, and the recruitment of Brown– to which Prof Siamon Gordon also played an important role. Gevers served as the Interim Director of the IDM until the official opening of the institute in 2005.

He recalls his role back then as committee work establishing some of the early framework of the Institute; membership guidelines in particular.I have been very fortunate to have had continued support from all the subsequent IDM Directors, including [Profs] Greg Hussey, and latterly Val Mizrahi. In fact, Val was a co-applicant for funding to establish our AFGrica Unit,” says Brown.

Established in 2017 AFGrica, the fungal infection research unit, based at the IDM and enhancing the fungal disease research at the Faculty of Health Sciences, was a collaborative effort between the Universities of Cape Town and Aberdeen, and more recently Exeter. The international research centre, one of the first to study fungal infection, targets priority areas in fungal disease which have been recognised as relevant to populations on the African continent.

“Our goal is to promote research and training in fungal diseases in South Africa and the rest of Africa. Fungal infections are estimated to kill as many people as TB (tuberculosis) every year and three times more than malaria, yet we have only a handful of doctors and scientists researching these infections,” says Brown who is also the Unit’s Director.
He further explains that the AFGrica Unit is closely affiliated with the Medical Research Council Centre for Medical Mycology at the University of Exeter. “We are currently growing the Unit, by recruiting scientists and clinicians, but have already started to hold training courses and workshops which have proven very successful.” He mentions the most recent training course they hosted being hugely oversubscribed.

The Unit recruited Dr Claire Hoving who established a cutting-edge research program funded by the Wellcome Trust. “[It focuses] on African-related fungal infections. Claire is making crucial breakthroughs in our understanding of these infections, which will accelerate our ability to treat these diseases in the future.”

Although most of his work is conducted using animal and other models Brown has also translated these discoveries into human benefit. This has led to the identification of alterations in genes and other factors that are associated with disease susceptibility. His expertise has also resulted in his developing a novel therapy that was successfully tested in patients.

It’s this body of work which lead to Brown being nominated as a Fellow of the Royal Society – a prestigious accolade. The rigorous selection process which includes external referees weighing in has left him feeling “thrilled and honoured to have been selected.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society was quoted on the website saying: “'At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity… While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance.”