Scientists say ‘eureka’ on HIV and chemical warfare

An in-the-field device to detect chemical warfare agents has featured among this year’s Eureka prize winners. AAP

An immunity booster to take on HIV and a lab-on-a-chip device to identify chemical warfare agents have featured in this year’s Eureka awards, which celebrate innovators in Australian science.

This year’s Australian Museum Eureka Prize, the 23rd, awarded $180,000 in prize money to scientists and researchers tackling some of the world’s most challenging and controversial issues.

UTS researchers Dana Cordell and Stuart While collected the Environmental Research award for their work exploring ways to conserve phosphorous – an essential building block in the food production cycle.

“It’s an issue of paramount environmental importance as phosphorus is an irreplaceable element without which humans could not exist. Dr Cordell and Professor White are its champions,” said Australian Museum director Frank Howarth.

Yonggang Zhu from CSIRO’s Materials Science and Engineering department received the award for Outstanding Science in Support of Defence and National Security for his “lab-on-a-chip” technology that can detect chemical warfare agents in the field, potentially saving lives in the case of a chemical attack.

The device provides on-the-spot results with the same accuracy as a fully staffed analytical laboratory, Mr Howarth said. “There are no other commercially available instruments able to do this. Current devices are difficult to use, unable to be deployed in the field, and have too high a rate of false alarms.”

The issue of animal welfare and abuse, featuring more widely in mainstream discussion, was also highlighted in the awards, with University of Queensland professor Clive Phillips picking up the award for Scientific Research That Contributes to Animal Protection.

The welfare of animals is increasingly the subject of scientific research, Professor Phillips said. “UQ has a significant team of scientists that I am fortunate to be part of, devoted to investigating ways of improving the way in which we look after animals.”

Professor Phillips, who has written extensively for The Conversation on live animal exports, was recognised for providing scientific evidence to support government and community management of animal welfare.

A team of Melbourne scientists, led by Marc Pelligrini of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, picked up the award for Infectious Diseases Research for developing a technique to boost the body’s immunity helping to transform the treatment of HIV and other chronic infections.

“The findings of Dr Marc Pellegrini and his colleagues at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research provide new hope that we may soon be able to prevent the five million deaths annually which are associated with devastating infections such as tuberculosis and HIV,” Mr Howarth said.

The Institute’s director, Professor Doug Hilton, was also recognised, collecting the Outstanding Mentor of Young Researchers award for the support and encouragement he has offered young scientists over the past two decades.

The full list of Eureka Prize winners can be viewed here.