Triathlete turned scientist wins major research award for uncovering potential obesity and diabetes treatment

  • Professor Mark Febbraio wins the GSK Award for Research Excellence in 2020
  • The former professional athlete turned medical researcher becomes the 40th winner of the prestigious award

An Australian scientist who is leading the development of a new potential treatment for obesity, type 2 diabetes, and muscle mass loss, has won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence (ARE).

Ground-breaking research led by Professor Mark Febbraio – Head of the Cellular and Molecular Metabolism Laboratory within the Drug Discovery Program at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Science – synthesized a protein (called IC7Fc). This protein has the potential to treat metabolic diseases that are known to be protected by exercise, by improving glucose metabolism and preventing weight gain.

Metabolic diseases are becoming a growing pandemic in global communities with research demonstrating that over 60% of cancers are linked to obesity1. Type 2 diabetes costs the Australian health care system more than $6 billion annually and affects more than 1.5 million Australians2.

Professor Febbraio and his team are preparing for phase one clinical trials to determine the application of this discovery in developing a treatment to address currently unmet treatment needs. The $80,000 prize that comes with the GSK Award for Research Excellence will support this research.

According to the researcher (whose research interests stem from his former life as a professional triathlete), advancing novel treatment options could mean that we could stop, or reverse, the progression of metabolic diseases (like type 2 diabetes) in the future.

“We’ve discovered how we can leverage the relationship that IC7Fc has with metabolism to address the underlying causes and effects of metabolic diseases. This means our research is moving toward taking this class of drugs into the clinic to deliver the next generation of treatment options,” said Professor Febbraio.

“COVID-19 has placed an even greater importance on our research. Patients living with diabetes, obesity and other metabolic diseases continue to be at a higher risk of experiencing severe illness if they contract the virus. The development of a potential new treatment for these diseases will provide hope to those feeling particularly vulnerable in the wake of the pandemic,” he said.

Dr Andrew Weekes, Medical Director, GSK Australia, said that Professor Febbraio’s work has the potential to evolve into treatment options for millions of patients globally who might otherwise have limited options.

“Professor Febbraio is an outstanding example of how home-grown innovation and collaboration can potentially impact the lives of patients around the world. His innovative research into metabolic diseases is paving the way for new treatment options for some of the world’s most common serious conditions. We are honoured to recognise his achievements,” said Dr Weekes.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Professor Febbraio was announced as the 2020 GSK Award for Research Excellence winner through a virtual event held on Facebook Premiere. The event also celebrated the 40-year anniversary of the award and GSK’s ongoing commitment to supporting Australian medical research.

Professor Febbraio said being the 40th winner of the GSK Award for Research Excellence was a great honour, especially as he joins an esteemed group of Australian medical researchers whose work has been recognised over the last four decades.

“The events of this year have really shined a light on the importance of medical research. Awards like the GSK Award for Research Excellence play a key role in recognising and supporting Australian research. I am proud to be a part of this story that highlights incredible science and innovation,” said Professor Febbraio.

“In this industry, collaboration is everything. So to my team, colleagues, mentors, industry – know this award is not mine, it’s ours.”

The GSK Award for Research Excellence 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 with a focus on human health. It has awarded almost $3 million* to support Australian research and innovation through the last 40 years.

Among the previous recipients of the GSK Award for Research Excellence are some of Australia’s most noted scientific researchers, including Professor Tony Basten (1980), Professor Nicos Nicola (1993), and Professor Kathryn North (2011). The 2019 GSK Award for Research Excellence was awarded to Professor Brendan Crabb from the Burnet Institute for his work in better understanding the DNA of the malaria parasite and exploring the next generation of treatments and vaccines for malaria.