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Cambridge researchers win three Microbiology Society 2023 prizes

Cambridge researchers have won three of the six prestigious annual awards from the Microbiology Society this year.

Cambridge winners of 2023 Microbiology Society prizes. From left, Dr Tanmay Bharat, Prof Sharon Peacock and Prof Ravi Gupta. Pictures: MRC LMB / COG-UK / CUH (60928184)
Cambridge winners of 2023 Microbiology Society prizes. From left, Dr Tanmay Bharat, Prof Sharon Peacock and Prof Ravi Gupta. Pictures: MRC LMB / COG-UK / CUH (60928184)

Prof Ravindra Gupta, of Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge, has won the Translational Microbiology Prize 2023 in recognition of his research to combat HIV and Covid-19.

The Marjory Stephenson Prize 2023 has been awarded to Prof Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, who was the founding director of COG-UK (the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium) - formed in April 2020 to provide SARS-CoV-2 genomes to UK public health agencies, the NHS and researchers.

And Dr Tanmay Bharat, a group leader in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, has won the Fleming Prize 2023. His laboratory studies cell surfaces of prokaryotes at the atomic level using electron tomography and associated techniques.

The £1,000 prizes will be awarded at the Microbiology Society’s 2023 conference in Birmingham from April 17-20, where the winners will present lectures.

The Prize Medal went to Professor Wendy Barclay, of Imperial College London, the Peter Wildy Prize went to Prof Iruka N Okeke, of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria, and Outreach Prize was awarded jointly to Prof Kalai Mathee, of Florida International University, USA, and Dr Jonathan Tyrrell, of the University of Swansea.

Translational Microbiology Prize 2023: Professor Ravindra Gupta

Prof Ravi Gupta. Picture: CUH
Prof Ravi Gupta. Picture: CUH

The Gupta lab, which works between Cambridge and the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban, South Africa, has worked on HIV drug resistance at molecular and population levels, and aided our understanding of the scale of drug resistance globally.

The group has studied HIV reservoirs in cells, particularly macrophages, within which HIV virus replication occurs, and their work aids the design of strategies to cure the disease.

Drawing on their work on HIV drug resistance, Prof Gupta and his team played a vital role in the fight against Covid-19, introducing SAMBA II testing at Addenbrooke’s which enabled faster diagnosis to help the hospital provide the safest possible care to patients.

Prof Gupta, who has been professor of clinical microbiology at the Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases since 2019, said: “I am thrilled and honoured to receive the Translational Microbiology Prize. For me, it represents a recognition of the work of my team and our collaborators over the years in applying scientific knowledge to combat viruses such as HIV-1 and SARS-CoV-2.

“This award from an internationally-reputed organisation in infectious diseases also provides impetus to continue our endeavours with ever greater passion and commitment.”

Covid-19 testing using SAMBA machines at Addenbrooke’s. Picture: CUH
Covid-19 testing using SAMBA machines at Addenbrooke’s. Picture: CUH

The team has also studied how new variants arise and are transmitted, work that helped Prof Gupta be named as one of the 100 Most Influential People in 2020 by TIME.

The £1,000 prize will be given at the Microbiology Society’s annual conference in April 2023 where Prof Gupta will present a lecture.

He was named this month on the 2022 Highly Cited Researchers list by global insight provider Clarivate, along with more than 40 University of Cambridge colleagues and Lee Smith, professor of public health at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU).

Fleming Prize 2023: Dr Tanmay Bharat

Dr Tanmay Bharat, group leader in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC LMB. Picture: MRC LMB
Dr Tanmay Bharat, group leader in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC LMB. Picture: MRC LMB

Dr Bharat’s laboratory’s focus on surface molecules is important because they mediate cellular interactions with the environment and play key roles in processes such as cell adhesion, biofilm formation and antibiotic tolerance in pathogenic bacteria.

Studying the surface molecules that allow pathogenic bacteria like P. aeruginosa to evade antibiotic treatment through formation of biofilms helps to improve treatments of nfections.

He said: “I am delighted and honoured to receive the 2023 Fleming Prize. This award is a result of the talent, hard-work and endless optimism of my colleagues in the laboratory.

“I am particularly grateful to have recognition from the microbiology community, because in addition to our work on biofilms, one of the major areas of our research on prokaryotic surface layers is in desperate need of wider attention, and this prestigious award will help immensely in that respect.

“I have long admired previous winners of the Fleming Prize, and I am indeed humbled to be part of this outstanding group of scientists.”

The Fleming Prize is named after Sir Alexander Fleming, founder and first President (1945-47) of the Microbiology Society, then named the Society for General Microbiology, and is awarded to an early career researcher who has achieved an outstanding research record.

Marjory Stephenson Prize 2023: Professor Sharon Peacock

Prof Sharon Peacock
Prof Sharon Peacock

Prof Peacock, an academic clinical microbiologist with expertise in pathogen genomics, antimicrobial resistance and a range of tropical diseases, played a critical role in the UK’s Covid response with COG-UK.

She said: “I am honoured to be the 2023 recipient of the Microbiology Society’s Marjory Stephenson Prize. The prize reflects the work of a large number of dedicated people in the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK) and beyond, who worked voluntarily and tirelessly across the UK to generate SARS-CoV-2 genomes for public health agencies and researchers worldwide during the pandemic so that changes in viral genetics and associated biology could be understood and tracked.

“Microbiology has always been a vitally important discipline, but perhaps never more so than in this era of pandemics, antimicrobial resistance and the exploration of our microbiome and how this influences health and disease. I consider the scientific community fortunate in having the benefit of the ongoing contributions made by the Microbiology Society.”

Over her career, Prof Peacock has raised more than £60million in science funding, published more than 500 peer-reviewed papers and trained a generation of scientists.

The award is named after Microbiology Society founding member and former president Marjory Stephenson (1947–48). It is awarded to an individual who has made exceptional contributions to the discipline of microbiology.

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