Professor Helen Marshall Named 2023 South Australian Scientist of the Year

Professor Helen Marshal

Leading University of Adelaide vaccinologist Professor Helen Marshall AM has been named the 2023 South Australian Scientist of the Year for her pioneering and life-saving research on meningococcal disease and immunisation.

This prestigious title is awarded to a scientist by the Government of South Australia as part of the annual SA Science Excellence and Innovation Awards for outstanding contribution to and inspirational leadership in their field.

Through her work at the Adelaide Medical School, Professor Helen Marshall has saved lives and prevented disability in dozens of children and young people. The conditions at the centre of her research, meningococcal meningitis and sepsis, can cause deafness, blindness, brain injury, the amputation of limbs, and death–– despite the availability of antibiotics.

In South Australia, the most common cause of meningococcal disease is the B strain, so when a candidate vaccine for meningococcal B was developed in the UK, Professor Marshall was eager to spearhead its introduction to our state.

“I led the first clinical trials of a meningococcal B vaccine globally and then advocated for a meningococcal B vaccine herd immunity study to be undertaken in South Australia,” Professor Marshall said.

“This meant South Australian young people had early and free access to a licensed meningococcal B vaccine.”

Over 90% of schools participated in the randomised controlled trial, and it showed very high vaccine effectiveness in preventing disease and reducing cases.

These study results informed the SA meningococcal B vaccine program, the first in the world to fund an immunisation program for both infants and adolescents against meningococcal B.  

In the first 2 years of the program, an estimated 48 South Australian cases of meningococcal disease in infants and adolescents were averted, saving 20 children from life-long disability and preventing 3 to 5 deaths.

What’s next? 

Professor Marshall recently made another break-through discovery that will steer the course of her research. The 2023 South Australian Scientist of the Year showed that the meningococcal B vaccine also provides cross-protection against gonococcus bacteria, which causes gonorrhoea and doesn’t currently have a vaccine of its own.

Based on these findings, the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation in the UK has recommended individuals at high risk of gonorrhoea receive the meningococcal B vaccine. 

This discovery spurred on further research, with Professor Marshall’s team winning a NHMRC Partnership grant to undertake a study in the Northern Territory, where rates of gonorrhoea are highest in young people. They are also conducting new research to determine the vaccine’s duration of immunity against meningococcal B and gonorrhoea and if booster doses will be necessary.

Professor Marshall hopes her work will continue to help prevent disease, death, and disability on a larger scale.

“I will ensure our evidence is available to policy makers to determine the best immunisation program to protect against meningococcal B disease and gonorrhoea in Australia and globally,” she said.

Photo credit: 2023 SA Science Excellence and Innovation Awards; Randy Larcombe Films + Stills

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