CSL Centenary Fellowship will enable Monash research into complications of stroke

Dr Connie Wong from Monash University's Centre for Inflammatory Diseases has been awarded a highly prestigious AUD$1.25 million, five-year, CSL Centenary Fellowship to further her research into why so many people die from infection following stroke.

Stroke is responsible for ten per cent of deaths worldwide. Dr Wong wants to understand why as many as one fifth of deaths following stroke are caused by pneumonia and other infections.

Dr Wong and her team have discovered that stroke not only damages the brain but weakens the immune system and allows bacteria in the gut to escape and cause infection in other parts of the body.

“My team was the first in the world to discover why up to a fifth of all deaths following stroke are from pneumonia and other infections,” Dr Wong said.

“This Fellowship now gives me the opportunity to work out how and why the gut barrier breaks down after a stroke.”

Dr Wong will also investigate how the brain communicates with the immune system; find new strategies to restore the gut barrier’s integrity; and test novel therapies to revive the immune system after a stroke so it can keep fighting infection.

“I’m very intrigued by the brain. I want to understand how a brain injury, such as a stroke, can change the way the body fights an infection.

“Clinicians give patients antibiotics, but clinical trials have shown that antibiotics aren’t effective in reducing the rates of infection or improving patients’ survival after infection,” Dr Wong said.

In 2011, Dr Wong and her colleagues discovered that after a stroke, the brain sends signals to relax the immune system. This prevents inflammation from damaging the brain while it’s repairing itself – but it also stops immune cells fighting infections elsewhere in the body.

Then, in 2016, the team were the first to show that a stroke also changes the gut, making the gut barrier permeable. This allows bacteria to escape to other parts of the body, causing the killer infections. Now that Dr Wong knows where the infections are coming from, she hopes to find ways to shut them down.

“You can get gap-filler for cracks in your house - we need something similar for the gut, like new drugs to seal up the gut barrier and stop the bacteria from escaping,” she said.

Dr Wong also hopes her work will reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in the treatment of stroke.

“I hope that in five years’ time I will have made a difference in how patients with stroke are treated, found new ways of stopping infection, and developed therapies to wake up the immune system again without the damaging effects.”

Dr Wong is a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Fellow at Monash University. Her research is supported by the National Heart Foundation and the National Health and Medical Research Council.

Further reading about Dr Wong’s research

The $25 million CSL Centenary Fellowships program was established in 2016 to foster excellence in medical research by supporting mid-career Australian scientists to pursue world-class research.