ARE 2004

Celebrated Cellular Signalling Scientist Wins GSK Award

Prominent Melbourne medical researcher, Professor Doug Hilton, from The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, has been awarded the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence by GlaxoSmithKline Australia. Among Prof Hilton's pioneering achievements are major discoveries about how the body's cells communicate with each other. These discoveries have excited the academic community and have major potential for improving healthcare.

Prof Hilton says, "The cells within our body form a community and these cells all need to communicate effectively to get their various jobs done. The signals that cells send might be to promote growth or heal a wound or attack an invader, so these signals are essential for life. When the internal communication system is working well, the messages arrive for the right recipients with instructions about what action to take and, importantly, when to stop.

"But there are times when the communication system breaks down, which can cause life-threatening diseases. For example, overly 'loud' growth signals may cause the uncontrolled multiplication of rogue cells that take over our own bodies – in other words, cancer.

"When the cells obey the signals, the cellular traffic moves along just fine. But if something interferes with the signals, the result can be chaos. If we can more carefully regulate cell signalling and remove the faults, then we will be able to more effectively control related diseases, such as cancer and autoimmune diseases."

Hilton's key discoveries include:

  • a messenger (or cytokine), known as Leukemia Inhibitory Factor or LIF, which is sent by one cell type to act on cells in another part of the body;
  • a set of receptors present on the surface of cells, which are used by cells to receive the cytokine messengers; and
  • a large family of proteins called Suppressors Of Cytokine Signalling, which tell cells to stop responding to messages.

Prof Hilton continues, "There is an enormous amount of serendipity in science. We were interested in LIF because it forced leukemic cells to stop growing, but later found that LIF has other uses.

"First, we have found that LIF is capable of suppressing the differentiation or development of embryonic stem cells, allowing them to be used in the production of genetically modified mice. This is of huge importance, because mice are very similar physiologically to humans, so we can observe how various genetic markers and combinations are likely to affect human health. This technology is now used in labs all over the world.

"Second, it appears that many women who have difficulty conceiving do not produce enough LIF. Recent and ongoing trials with a drug derived from LIF, emfilermin, suggest that women undergoing IVF treatment and who have suffered embryo implantation failures, might now have a much greater chance of a successful pregnancy. That's why it's so important to maintain broad, enquiry-based science, because advances in one area can have unexpected benefits in several other areas."

Prof Hilton is delighted to win the GSK Award, since it recognizes the powerful fusion of academic research and practical application. An award of this kind also heightens expectations, adds Prof Hilton. "It raises the bar, so to speak, and fires you up to make further important discoveries."

Prof Doug Hilton, An Australian citizen, was born in the UK in 1964. He is currently NHMRC Senior Principal Research Fellow and Laboratory Head in the Cancer and Haematology Division of The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Parkville, Victoria, Australia.