GSK Award for Research Excellence
The GSK Award for Research Excellence (ARE) is one of the most prestigious awards available to the Australian medical research community. It has been awarded since 1980 to recognise outstanding achievements in medical research and facilitates career development with potential importance to human health and Australian research.
The Award, which now comes with an $80,000 grant, was first presented as the Wellcome Australia Medal and then as the Glaxo-Wellcome Medal before receiving its current name.
Among the recipients are Australia’s most noted scientific researchers, including Professor Tony Basten (1980), Professor Nicos Nicola (1993) and Professor Peter Koopman (2007).
The 2014 GSK Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professor David Craik for his groundbreaking research into developing novel pain relief interventions using plant peptides.
Professor James McCluskey & Professor Jamie Rossjohn
University of Melbourne and Monash University
Area of Research Excellence: Immunology
James McCluskey (University of Melbourne) and Jamie Rossjohn (Monash University) have been working in collaboration for 12 years.
Their research is inspired by a mutual interest in how the immune system does, and doesn’t, work.
This relates to how it recognises pathogens (harmful germs) like salmonella and mycobacteria that cause tuberculosis. Their long term quest to understand what these cells do and see, is a great example of curiosity-led science and could impact on our understanding of a range of ailments such as inflammatory bowel disease, peptic ulcers, tuberculosis and lead to better vaccines.
McCluskey and Rossjohn have been studying a group of lymphocytes called Mucosal associated invariant T (MAIT) cells. These are found in mucosal sites such as the gut, lungs and the liver. Nobody knows what they do and what it is they recognise in bacteria. These cells are quite prominent and have receptors on their membrane that are the same in all humans.
Their work has led them to understand that the manufacture of vitamin B2 plays an extremely important protective role in alerting the immune system to foreign bacteria.
Our teams are working extremely hard to see where this discovery will take them and to ensure the best fundamental science will lead to the best innovative therapeutics.
Vitamins are vital to living cells. Humans don’t make their own but derive them from diet, whereas bacteria must make their own vitamins. This means the building blocks of vitamins are foreign molecules to a mammal or a human being. One of their key recent discoveries has been to show that MAIT cells recognise metabolites, or by-products arising from the bacterial production of vitamin B2 or riboflavin. This work is part of a larger piece of work about what the immune system recognises in general.
McCluskey and Rossjohn are at an exciting point in this research and winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence will help them continue their valuable work and nurture young talent in their laboratories.
Professor David Craik
Plants with peptide-based drugs in their seeds and leaves, and pain relief from cone snail venom are two of the innovative applications from the research of Professor David Craik, winner of the 34th GSK Award for Research Excellence at last night’s Research Australia Awards dinner in Sydney.
Professor Craik, a biological chemist from The University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, discovered the largest known family of circular proteins, called cyclotides, which he is using to develop drug design approaches to treat pain and disease, and insecticides to protect Australian food and fibre crops.
Professor Craik’s groundbreaking research was originally inspired by a Norwegian doctor’s discovery of an African tea for childbirth. “The tea shortened labour,” Professor Craik says, “but at the time they didn’t know why the plant-based medicine worked.”
Twenty years later Professor Craik made his discovery. “It was the unusual circular structure of the molecules. We knew peptides had great potential, but were previously unable to be taken orally as the digestive system would break them down. Our circular peptides are joined from head to tail, which makes them much stronger,” he says. “I did extensive fieldwork in Africa and elsewhere searching for plants with similar circular peptides to understand their structure.”
Professor Craik went on to develop the chemistry for making ‘designer’ cyclotides, which can be used to develop new drugs with improved oral availability with few side effects. “My team has been working on using cone snail venom as a pain relief drug 100 times more potent than morphine,” he says. “We are also producing peptide-based drug leads for chronic diseases in edible plant seeds, which we hope will give developing countries access to produce vital medicines at relatively low cost.”
Research Australia’s CEO Elizabeth Foley says funding for such groundbreaking research is vital to the Australian science community. “It takes decades for medical research ideas to develop,” she says. “Funding like this is essential to assist research teams to continue their work.”
Geoff McDonald, GSK’s Vice President and General Manager says presenting the award is an exciting annual event. “The award represents outstanding Australian research and we are proud to be able to support Professor Craik and his team to continue their pioneering research,” he says. “Professor Craik’s cyclotides could potentially underpin new treatments for cancer, chronic pain and multiple sclerosis in the future and revolutionise drug delivery methods.”
Professor Craik, an avid mountain trekker and marathon runner, flew from Brisbane to receive the award. “I am honoured and delighted to receive this award and particularly pleased that it recognises the efforts of an outstanding team of PhD students, post-doctorates and research assistants who have contributed to this work over many years,” he says.
“Human trials are still a few years off, but winning a prestigious award such as this helps us raise awareness of the exciting developments happening in our lab and brings us closer to our goals.”
Professor Ingrid Scheffer
Professor Ingrid Scheffer received the Award in 2013 for her work helping to transform the diagnosis of epilepsy.
GSK Medical Director Dr Andrew Yeates says Professor Scheffer’s clinical research has resulted in the identification of several new epilepsy syndromes and has led directly to the discovery of new causative genes.
“This allows a better understanding of the course of the condition, a targeted approach to therapy, and where appropriate, enables other family members to have genetic testing to understand any implications for themselves,” said Dr Andrew Yeates.
Professor Scheffer’s collaborative has work led directly to the identification of the first gene for epilepsy in 1995 and since, more than half of the 30 or so known genes.
Much of her work has focused on improving our understanding of some of the most devastating and difficult to treat types of epilepsy – some of which cause children to have frequent debilitating seizures, intellectual impairment, and poor quality of life.
Making a difference to her patients and their families is the reason Professor Ingrid Scheffer is a clinical researcher.
“Being able to explain to a mother why her son has epilepsy and intellectual disability, after she has lived through 28 years of concern about what caused the illness is a key motivator for me,” said Professor Scheffer.
Professor Scheffer studied for 13 years to become a paediatric neurologist followed by three years of her PhD to be trained as a clinical scientist.
“I had always thought of myself as a doctor, not a scientist and even now I don’t do research in a lab, I do it with patients and my large team of researchers at The Florey Institute and the University of Melbourne.” said Professor Scheffer.
Professor Scheffer and her colleagues have revolutionised the way the medical world diagnoses epilepsy. This seismic change has only occurred in the last 18 years since discovering the first epilepsy gene.
She says, “Research has allowed us to find a cause. That is huge but it is only the beginning of the journey.”
Australian National University’s Professor Chris Goodnow claimed the 2012 Award for Research Excellence for his pioneering work on autoimmune diseases.
Professor Goodnow was awarded the $80,000 grant to further develop his world-leading research on the cause of autoimmune diseases – something still unknown in most people affected by these disorders.
With funding from the grant Goodnow is now testing a controversial theory - that autoimmune disorders are a form of benign cancer - and has the potential to lead to more effective treatments and preventions for the millions who struggle or are at risk of these diseases globally.
“It’s a high risk and high returns approach – testing a theory for autoimmune disease that’s somewhat controversial. Some people really love it, but some people really hate it. That’s a good sign; no one finds it boring.” Professor Goodnow said.
During his 30 years of research, he has improved our understanding of how the immune system decides what is a person’s body and what is an invading microbe that should be attacked. In patients with an autoimmune disorder, the immune system can't tell the difference between healthy body tissue and microbes. Professor Goodnow has also identified genes and pathways involved in these decisions.
On receiving the award, Professor Goodnow spoke about how funding from the grant will enable his research team to use a new technology, known as Massively Parallel Sequencing , to test his controversial hypothesis – that autoimmune diseases are a form of benign lymphoma cancer.
“It is an honour and a very exciting time to be recognised for my work. While there is still a long way to go in this area, this award has come at a very exciting stage of our research, and will help take us to the next level,” Professor Goodnow said.
“Without the grant from this award, the process to apply for funding to use the Massively Parallel Sequencing technology would potentially halt our research for years, delaying our understanding of autoimmune diseases and discovery of new treatments.
Although his hypothesis that autoimmunity is a benign form of lymphoma cancer is controversial, Professor Goodnow believes that he is on the right track. Further, his hero and major influence, Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet arrived at the same theory back in 1972.