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).
Professor Patrick Sexton and Professor Arthur Christopoulos
Australian researchers exploring “dimmer switch” medicines that could help patients with obesity, diabetes and schizophrenia, have won the prestigious GSK Award for Research Excellence.
The ground-breaking research by Professors Arthur Christopoulos and Patrick Sexton from Monash University offers hope for people with chronic conditions. According to the researchers, medicines that can be “turned up” or “turned down” rather than “on and off“ will give doctors more variability to tailor treatment to a patient’s medical needs. Medicines based on this principle will allow patients to lead a more normal life without the side effects associated with existing drugs.
Their research into G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) has begun to unravel the complexities of drug action that could lead to more targeted medicines. The “dimmer switch” of a protein, known as the allosteric site, allows the targeted protein to be dialled up or down in a way that was not previously possible.
Both professors were congratulated on winning the GSK Award for Research Excellence at the annual Research Australia Awards in Sydney. The award is well recognised among the Australian medical research community and includes an $80,000 prize that will help the winners progress their work.
“Many medicines have unwanted side effects because they work by simply turning receptors on or off, even though we know that most of these proteins have the potential for more graded levels of response that can become highly relevant in the contexts of tissue specificity, disease and individual patient profiles. We have discovered a more tailored way to exploit this functionality, by targeting regions on the receptors that act more like dimmer switches rather than on/off switches.”
Both professors are world leaders in the study of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), the largest class of drug targets, and the application of analytical pharmacology to understand allosteric modulation. In recent years their work has challenged traditional views of how medicines were thought to work.
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.”