Staff profile - Professor Mark von Itzstein
Director - Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University
Griffith University leading researcher, proud alumnus, equestrian and a member of the team that beat influenza. Professor Mark von Itzstein is truly multi-skilled. He’ll need all of it and more to beat his next challenge.
As a teenager Mark von Itzstein had to choose between science and becoming a professional equestrian.
An accomplished horse rider, he had an offer to go to an elite riding school in Europe. Instead, he chose science – a decision which probably saved thousands of lives.
That decision resulted in Professor von Itzstein leading the team that discovered the anti-flu drug Relenza in 1993. It was the first ‘designer’ drug to defeat influenza.
For Australians, the flu may not sound like a big deal. On a global scale, it’s devastating. More than 250,000 lives are claimed by flu each year.
The Relenza discovery led to Professor von Itzstein gracing the cover of Time magazine just over 20 years ago for his contribution to the project.
Now as Director of the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University he leads more than 200 likeminded scientific crusaders battling some of the world’s most confronting diseases.
They are tackling childhood leukaemia, melanoma, meningococcal disease and zika virus, to name a few. It’s the fight against malaria, that is one of the most exciting.
A team led by Professor Michael Good is conducting human trials for what will be the world’s first blood-stage whole parasite vaccine against malaria.
If successful, the vaccine could save close to a million lives a year, most of them children. The work can only be done thanks to Professor von Itzstein, himself a Griffith alumni, who founded the Institute for Glycomics in 2000 in a demountable building when the University’s Gold Coast campus was still in its infancy.
Now it’s a flagship research centre for Australia that receives dozens of enquiries a month from some of the world’s top scientists, many wanting to relocate to the Gold Coast to work with the Griffith University team.
It’s not only malaria that looks closer to being defeated than ever before. Professor Good is also behind the development of a Streptococcus vaccine that is in trial and central to a multi-million dollar deal with Chinese pharmaceutical firm Olymvax.
The Gold Coast is quickly becoming a global centre for medical research.