From childhood cancer to mapping human development: Pioneering scientist awarded 2019 Foulkes Foundation medal

Congratulations to Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, who has been recognised for her work on the immune system and childhood cancer

From childhood cancer to mapping human development: Pioneering scientist awarded 2019 Foulkes Foundation medal

Dr Muzlifa Haniffa photographed in the Super Resolution Imaging Lab, Newcastle UniversityJooney Woodward, Wellcome CC-BY

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, from Newcastle University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute, has won the 2019 Foulkes Foundation Medal for her outstanding contribution to biomedical science. Professor Haniffa’s research achievements include providing a better understanding of the developing human immune system and childhood kidney cancer, mapping the maternal-foetal interface and discovering new immune cells in the skin.

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

In October 2019, 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 valuable tool for understanding human health and diagnosing and treating disease. 

“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. I cannot think of anything more exciting than working to uncover all of the secrets of the body’s immune system.” 

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa, Newcastle University and Wellcome Sanger Institute

In 2018, Professor Haniffa and collaborators completed the first ever single-cell reconstruction of the maternal-foetal 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. 

“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.”

Mrs Maureen Foulkes-Hajdu, Chairman of the Foulkes Foundation

“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.”

Professor Sir Robert Lechler PMedSci, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences

Professor Haniffa will receive the Medal, along with a cash prize, at the Academy of Medical Sciences' AGM on 3 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.

Notes to Editors
Selected Websites
A trusty guide for exploring the complexity of cellsHuman Cell AtlasA trusty guide for exploring the complexity of cells
Single cell RNA sequencing data can be used to identify cell types. Martin Hemberg and Vladimir Kiselev explain how their new scmap method can help the Human Cell Atlas initiative by analysing this…

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