Doctor immune to long hours

IT’S the stuff of science fiction or Hollywood — glass vials filled with samples of blood and diseases in the race for a cure. 

For Sinthujan Jegaskanda it’s work.

The 25-year-old has spent the last seven years in a Melbourne University laboratory studying vaccines for HIV and bird flu. 

This week is likely to be his last Christmas with family in Warrnambool for a while before he heads to the United States to work for the country’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases near Washington. 

Dr Jegaskanda joined Australia’s virus researchers after graduating from Warrnambool College in 2006 and Melbourne University just last week. 

“At the moment I’m looking at the type of immunity against H709 (avian bird flu),  which is a problem in China right now with the outbreak,” Dr Jegaskanda said. 

“Right now it’s causing sporadic cases in China and it has about a 50 per cent mortality rate.”

Using blood data from China, researchers in Melbourne are looking for cases of natural immunity to the influenza with hopes it could form the basis for a vaccine. 

“Essentially we’re trying to figure out how broadly immunity is through these type of antibodies. And we’re trying to find out how much of that immunity exists in the population. The next step is figuring out if that can provide protection.”

The method doesn’t apply just to bird flu but also viruses that don’t yet exist. 

“It’s been shown that there are only a small amount of mutations that are required in those viruses (bird flu) to allow them to transmit to humans. If they acquire those mutations they can efficiently transmit between humans and that’s when we have a pandemic,” he said. 

“The idea is to make sure that we don’t have a pandemic. If a bird flu emerges into a population there’s relatively no immunity and that can cause a lot of mortality.” 

Science aside, lab work isn’t an easy feat. 

Birthdays and other social occasions have been sacrificed for study. 

Once in the American lab researchers are expected to do 12-hour work days for up to six days a week. 

But Dr Jegaskanda shrugs his shoulders at the long hours. 

“I’d like to test a few theories I have about influenza immunity. I’d like to have a grasp of what type of vaccine would work on human population level (a universal vaccine) and perhaps some insights into other viruses such as dengue virus,” he said. 

s.mccomish@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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