When Professor Suresh Mahalingam began his research career after completing his PhD in Viral Immunology at the ANU, he knew he wanted to work on less explored fields. “I was really interested in identifying a niche area of research,” he explains. “I shifted my focus to working on mosquito-borne viruses (arboviruses), an area that was not well covered at the time, especially in the case of Ross River Fever.
“I drove the program from its inception, worked in that area for several years, and made some very interesting discoveries along the way. I extended my research using the knowledge that I had learnt from working with Ross River virus to other pathogens that affect the global community, such as chikungunya and Zika.”
Now Suresh is a leading Australian virologist and international leader in virus-induced inflammation. His basic research has led to several major advances in our understanding of how viruses cause inflammatory disease. He pioneered the field of viral arthritis, making an impact that extends beyond his field into rheumatology and osteoimmunology, and uncovering links to autoimmune arthritis. Additionally, he has been active in translating his discoveries, leading to 5 commercialised products in the last 10 years.
His work has led to the discovery of drugs and vaccine candidates that have strong IP protection and have been licensed to industry, including vaccines for Zika and chikungunya, as well as a next-generation mucosal vaccine for COVID-19 that is administered as a nasal spray rather than an injection. Additionally, the drug Pentosan Polysulphate (marketed as Zylosul®) is now clinically used via the TGA Special Access Scheme for chronic Ross River virus disease.
Now that the vaccines have been licensed to industries—which means funding has been secured—the next step is to see them taken to human trials.
Suresh says that partnering with large companies injects crucial capital into the R&D of the products, with over 15 million dollars invested to date in these drugs and vaccines.
“We want to see these vaccines reach the market as soon as possible,” Suresh explains. “So, we are working diligently with these companies to meet regulatory requirements and proceed with human trials as soon as we can.”
As a result of high-level research success, he has received numerous awards and fellowships. He has continuously held NHMRC and ARC fellowships since 2000. His recognition for his research work includes being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology and the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia.
He was deputy director of the Queensland Tropical Heath Alliance and served on the International Advisory Board of the European Union Emerging Infection Program. He was appointed by the ACT Chief Minister to serve on the Biotechnology Advisory Board of the ACT government. He has been on the Board of Directors of the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS) since 2014, advocating for public and government engagement in science, and supporting the talent of our young scientists through the Young Tall Poppy national program.
Additionally, Suresh is appointed to a World Health Organization (WHO) advisory group tasked with combatting viruses such as dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and other emerging arboviruses. In this role, contributed to the WHO Global Arbovirus Initiative, a 5-year global arbovirus management plan.
“It is very satisfying to realise that the work I have done over the last 20 years, focusing on understanding how arboviruses cause disease and on the development of vaccines and therapeutics, has earned me recognition and the opportunity to be involved in this important WHO program,” he says.
Suresh’s advice for early career researchers is simple: think big. “I try to challenge my staff members, particularly PhD students and junior postdocs to think outside the box. ‘What is the next big discovery? What is the next invention? What have we not thought about?’ We need to be fast to get onto it because the process itself is a long one, so I am constantly challenging them and constantly thinking about it myself.”
Suresh is currently Principal Research Leader and NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the Menzies Health Institute Queensland, Griffith University. He is also head of the Emerging Viruses, Inflammation & Therapeutics (EVIT) research group and the Global Virus Network (GVN) Arbovirus Centre of Excellence.