Garvan researcher Dr Deborah Burnett has received one of five prestigious 2023 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Fellowships, to support her cutting-edge research investigating the immune mechanisms behind Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Guillain-Barré syndrome is a rare autoimmune disorder where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy nerve cells, leading to muscle weakness and paralysis. Dr Burnett’s research focus is how antibodies and immune cells called B cells drive this abnormal autoimmune response.
“By analysing the differences between the rogue B cells in Guillain-Barré syndrome and those from healthy immune responses, we can discover why immune regulation fails in some people,” explains Dr Burnett. “My team’s goal is to lay the groundwork for new therapies that specifically neutralise the disease-causing immune cells in patients.”
In addition to her work on Guillain-Barré syndrome, Dr Burnett leads initiatives to advance vaccine design and evaluate antibody responses against infectious disease targets. She is driving coronavirus vaccine development to target parts of a virus that are not able to mutate. Despite being only four years post-PhD, her research has led to 25 published papers and over 640 citations to date.
“I find the immune system fascinating in its intricacy and elegance,” says Dr Burnett. “By comprehending its complexities, I believe we can empower and refine it to overcome more threats, as well as better understand and control its misdirected responses in autoimmunity.”
Originally trained as a veterinarian, Dr Burnett developed an interest in immunology after puzzling over ambiguous animal health cases. She completed a PhD in immunology, focused on antibody development, which challenged existing paradigms around B cells’ role in vaccine responses. Her accomplishments have garnered significant funding, including a National Health and Medical Research Council Investigator Grant.
The L’Oréal program recognises five exceptional Australian researchers annually, acknowledging not only their innovative research but also their potential as role models for the next generation of female researchers. Its objective is to promote women’s achievements in STEM fields and their vital role in solving global challenges.
“Dr Burnett is an outstanding example of the contributions possible when women’s scientific brilliance is nurtured,” Chief Corporate Affairs & Engagement Officer at L'Oréal ANZ, Marnie Carroll.
As part of a distinguished group of over 65 past fellows, Dr Burnett hopes to inspire more young women to pursue science careers.
“In science, every setback is just a setup for a new discovery,” says Dr Burnett. “The key is to embrace these setbacks, learn from them, and let them guide the path forward.”
Dr Deborah Burnett is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer at St Vincent's Clinical School, Faculty of Medicine and Health, UNSW Sydney.