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

Professor Muzlifah Haniffa from Newcastle University and the Wellcome Sanger Institute* has won the 2019 Foulkes Foundation Medal for her ground-breaking contributions to biomedical science, it was announced today [Tuesday 19 November, 2019].

Professor Haniffa’s research 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.

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.

On receiving the award, 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.”

Just last month [October 2019] Professor Muzlifah 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 brilliant basis for understanding human health and diagnosing and treating disease. The recently added fetal-maternal interface and developing human liver maps are just two of the Human Cell Atlas’ freely accessible data sets.

Mrs 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.” 

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 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.

About her research, Professor Muzlifah 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.” 

Portrait of Professor Haniffa

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.




For more information please contact: Naomi Clarke, Senior Communications Officer, Academy of Medical Sciences, 020 3141 3208, 07903 158979 or 07969 082520, [email protected]   

* Professor Haniffa is a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow in Clinical Science, Lister Institute Research Prize Fellow, Professor of Dermatology and Immunology at Newcastle University, Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Senior Clinical Fellow at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Professor Haniffa is also a talented public engagement champion. In 2016 she ran a Wellcome Trust funded public engagement programme working with artists to produce an exhibition called Inside Skin: Conversations between Art and Science. Video here

Professor Haniffa gained her Diploma in Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and her PhD in skin immunology at Newcastle University, where she now runs her research group.

Notes for Editors

  1. The Academy of Medical Sciences is the independent body in the UK representing the diversity of medical science. Our elected Fellows are the UK’s leading medical scientists from hospitals, academia, industry and the public service. Our mission is to advance biomedical and health research and its translation into benefits for society. We are working to secure a future in which:
  • UK and global health is improved by the best research.
  • The UK leads the world in biomedical and health research, and is renowned for the quality of its research outputs, talent and collaborations.
  • Independent, high quality medical science advice informs the decisions that affect society.
  • More people have a say in the future of health and research.

Our work focusses on four key objectives, promoting excellence, developing talented researchers, influencing research and policy and engaging patients, the public and professionals.

  1. #MedSciLife is an ongoing campaign by The Academy of Medical Sciences 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.

  1. The Foulkes Foundation was established in 1972 by Dr Ernest Foulkes CBE HonMD HonFRCP following his retirement from the company he established, Measuring and Scientific Equipment Ltd, one of the world's most respected scientific instrument manufacturers. The Foundation aims to promote medical research, the training of scientists and the study of medicine.

  1. Foulkes Medal judging panel for 2019

Professor Robin Ali FMedSci, University College London

Professor John Chester, Cardiff University

Professor Maria Fitzgerald FMedSci, University College London

Mrs Maureen Foulkes-Hajdu, Foulkes Foundation

Professor Philippa Saunders FMedSci, University of Edinburgh

Professor Colin Self (Chair), Newcastle University

  1. Previous winners of the Foulkes Foundation Medal

The Foulkes Foundation Medal was first awarded to Professor Robin Ali FMedSci in 2007. The most recent previous winner was Dr Cristina Lo Celso in 2017. A list of all other winners can be found here 

Main story image courtesy of Jooney Woodward, Wellcome CC-BY



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