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Foulkes Medal

World-leading scientist wins prestigious medical award

Published on: 19 November 2019

A Newcastle expert has won a prestigious award for her groundbreaking contributions to medical science.

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, from Newcastle University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, has won the 2019 Foulkes Foundation Medal, awarded to a rising star making a significant impact on UK biomedical research.

Her achievements include providing a better understanding of the developing human immune system and childhood kidney cancer, mapping the maternal-fetal interface and discovering new immune cells in the skin.

Professor Haniffa said: “I couldn’t quite believe it when I heard that I was this year’s winner of the Foulkes Foundation Medal - I am thrilled! This award makes me feel increasingly driven to discover more about the immune system, by creating open access cell maps which can be used to better understand health and disease.”

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa

Rising star

The Foulkes Foundation Medal is awarded biennially by The Academy of Medical Sciences to a rising star for contributing important and significant scientific impacts to the biomedical field before, or in, their first independent position.

Just last month, Professor Haniffa and her collaborators announced the completion of the first ever cell map of the developing immune system in the human liver, skin and kidney.

Before this, no one knew exactly how the blood and immune systems develop in humans. This comprehensive map will be an essential tool in the fight to tackle leukaemia and diseases of the immune system, as well as having implications for regenerative medicine.

A champion of international scientific collaboration, Professor Haniffa is one of the pioneers behind the Human Cell Atlas, a global initiative which aims to map and characterise every cell in the body.

These reference maps are a fantastic basis for understanding human health and diagnosing and treating disease. The recently added maternal-fetal interface and developing human liver maps are just two of the Human Cell Atlas’ freely accessible data sets.

Maureen Foulkes-Hajdu, Chairman of the Foulkes Foundation, said: “It gives me enormous pleasure to present the 2019 Foulkes Foundation Medal to Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, an outstanding young, woman scientist who has played a key role in several fundamental science world firsts.

“I know she is working on further breakthrough research and eagerly await the results in due course.”

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of The Academy of Medical Sciences, said:“Professor Haniffa shows how multidisciplinary research can reap huge rewards for our understanding of the human body

“I am impressed that she prioritises team science, mentoring and engaging with the public alongside her cutting edge research.

“Her recent cell atlas of the immune system is open access, allowing other researchers to benefit from the research.

"We need more scientists who can bring this spirit, knowledge and skill to their work. I am delighted that Professor Haniffa has been recognised by the Foulkes Foundation as the rising star that she quite clearly is.”

Pioneering research

In 2018, Professor Haniffa and collaborators completed the first ever single-cell reconstruction of the maternal-fetal interface in humans, the area where mother and baby cells meet in the womb.

This detailed cell map is an important new resource for scientists to study what makes a pregnancy successful or unsuccessful and should lead to the development of techniques to reduce the risk of miscarriage and prevent conditions such as pre-eclampsia.

Professor Haniffa’s leading role in the Human Development Cell Atlas, part of the overall Human Cell Atlas, contributed to the identification of the prenatal cellular origin of Wilm’s tumour, a childhood kidney cancer most often found in children under the age of seven. With this knowledge, doctors may be able to treat children suffering from this type of cancer with a more targeted approach in the future, leading to quicker and better recoveries.

As a child, Professor Haniffa’s mother would take the family to the library at the British Council in Penang, Malaysia, every week. Here, she developed a fascination with quantum physics and outer space, dreaming of becoming an astronomer who discovered new worlds. 

Later in life, when studying Medicine at Cardiff University, she realised that the most exciting and mysterious world was right inside our body.

Professor Haniffa said: “Whenever I look into the inner-workings of the human body I feel like an explorer going into the depths of space. I cannot think of anything more exciting than working to uncover all of the secrets of the body’s immune system.” 

Professor Haniffa will receive the Foulkes Foundation Medal, along with a cash prize, at The Academy of Medical Sciences' AGM on 3rd December, where she will deliver a lecture on her research to the Academy’s prestigious Fellowship.

She will also be profiled in the Academy’s #MedSciLife campaign, which brings together personal stories of those working in medical and health research to promote different working practices and explore how passions and achievements outside work can influence careers.


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