Starving melanoma; how life almost ended; prizes for journalists and scientists

Bulletins, Media bulletins

Two news stories today – from Sydney and Tasmania, beautiful science images, and submit your best science writing for a $7,000 prize.

Could we treat melanoma by cutting off its food source?

Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world. It is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and third most common cancer in Australia.

Unlike normal cells, melanoma and other cancer cells rely on the amino acid glutamine instead of glucose for the energy required to divide and grow.

A team at Sydney’s Centenary Institute has shown that if we starve melanoma of these essential nutrients, we can stop the cancer from growing.

Their research, published today by in the International Journal of Cancer, opens up the prospect of a new class of drugs to treat melanoma… and possibly other cancers.

Life stuck in slime for a billion years

What made the evolution of life explode and stagnate at different times in the Earth’s history?

Using a new technique they developed to hunt for mineral deposits, Tasmanian researchers have revealed how low oxygen levels almost suffocated  life on Earth.

The research, to be published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, offers a new explanation as to why life remained as little more than slime for a billion years, before rapidly diversifying in the ‘Cambrian explosion of life’.

The art of science…

What does pain look like? How does the brain develop and grow?

Two stunning images which capture the inner workings of your brain and nervous system.

Let me know if you’d like print-resolution copies or a chat with the photographer.

Have you done a great piece of science writing? $7,000 up for grabs.

Dig out your best feature piece from the past year and submit it for UNSW’s annual prize for science writing.

The winner gets $7,000, and the best work will be considered for their annual book: The Best Australian Science Writing 2014.

And if you’ve met a remarkable scientist, consider encouraging them to nominate for one of the big prizes for scientists. More on those below.

Could we treat melanoma by cutting off its food source?

The latest research from Sydney’s Centenary Institute and the University of Sydney suggests we could.

 Last year the researchers showed they could starve prostate cancer. Now a further discovery opens up the prospect of a new class of drugs that could work across a range of cancers including melanoma.

 Australia has the highest rate of melanoma in the world. It is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and third most common cancer in Australia.

Unlike normal cells, melanoma and other cancer cells rely on the amino acid glutamine instead of glucose for the energy required to divide and grow. Thus, in order to fuel their rapid growth, cancer cells need to pump glutamine into their cells.

New research published today in the International Journal of Cancer has found that not only do melanoma cells have more glutamine pumps on their surface, but that blocking these pumps stops their growth. The work was led by Dr Jeff Holst, who heads the Centenary Institute’s Origins of Cancer Research Group, together with post-doctoral fellow Dr Qian (Kevin) Wang.

“We’ve shown that if we starve melanoma of these essential nutrients, we can stop the cancer from growing,” says Dr Holst.  “This involves blocking the protein pumps that move glutamine into tumour cells, which successfully slowed the growth of the tumours in cell cultures”.

Although often curable if detected early, melanoma is one of the most difficult cancers to treat once it has spread, because it rapidly develops resistance to known therapies. “But a drug that specifically targets and inhibits the glutamine pump will give us a new and different approach from current treatments,” says Dr Holst.

“This is a long journey to the clinic, but it’s an exciting development,” Dr Holst says. He hopes such a compound can be developed and tested in five to 10 years.

Last year Dr Holst’s group published a paper in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showing that prostate cancer cells require another amino acid, leucine, for their growth. “We first demonstrated this nutrient pumping mechanism in prostate cancers, and it now looks like it occurs in a broad range of cancers, particularly solid cancers such as melanoma. This opens the possibility of designing therapies that can be used to block nutrient pumps across multiple cancers.”

Full media release and photos available at:

For interviews and more information:


Life stuck in slime for a billion years

Tasmanian researchers have revealed ancient conditions that almost ended life on Earth, using a new technique they developed to hunt for mineral deposits.

The first life developed in the ancient oceans around 3.6 billion years ago, but then nothing much happened. Life remained as little more than a layer of slime for a billion years. Suddenly, 550 million years ago, evolution burst back into action – and here we are today. So what was the hold-up during those ‘boring billion’ years?

According to University of Tasmania geologist Professor Ross Large and his international team, the key was a lack of oxygen and nutrient elements, which placed evolution in a precarious position. “During that billion years, oxygen levels declined and the oceans were losing the ingredients needed for life to develop into more complex organisms.”

By analysing ancient seafloor rocks, Ross and his Australian, Russian, US and Canadian colleagues were able to show that the slowdown in evolution was tightly linked to low levels of oxygen and biologically-important elements in the oceans.

“We’ve looked at thousands of samples of the mineral pyrite in rocks that formed in the ancient oceans. And by measuring the levels of certain trace elements in the pyrite, using a technique developed in our labs, we’ve found that we can tell an accurate story about how much oxygen and nutrients were around billions of years ago.”

Their research will be published in the March issue of the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“We were initially looking at oxygen levels in the ancient oceans and atmosphere to understand how mineral deposits form, and where to look for them today. That’s a focus of the Centre for Ore Deposit and Exploration Science (CODES), which we established with ARC and industry funding at UTAS in 1989,” Ross explains. “But the technology we have developed to find minerals can also tell us much about the evolution of life.”

After an initial burst of oxygen, the study plots a long decline in oxygen levels during the ‘boring billion’ years before leaping up about 750-550 million years ago. “We think this recovery of oxygen levels led to a significant increase in trace metals in the ocean and triggered the ‘Cambrian explosion of life’.

“We will be doing much more with this technology, but it’s already becoming clear that there have been many fluctuations in trace metal levels over the millennia and these may help us understand a host of events including the emergence of life, fish, plants and dinosaurs, mass extinctions, and the development of seafloor gold and other ore deposits,” Ross says.

Full media release and photos available at:

For interviews and more information:

Professor Ross Large on 0418 352 501 or

Dr Jacqueline Halpin

Laura Boland on 0408 166 426 or

The Centre for Ore Deposit and Exploration Science was established as an Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence. The study has been funded by the Australian Research Council and is collaboration with the Russian Academy of Science, University of California, the Yukon Geological Survey, Geological Survey of Western Australia, Flinders University, Museum Victoria, and Mineral Resources Tasmania.

What does pain look like? How does the brain develop and grow?

The art of science: a network of nerve cells and a neural sunrise, captured under the microscope

Neural spiderwebs – unlocking the secrets of low level laser irradiation for pain therapy

This stunning image shows a network of the nerve cells which carry sensory information from the world to your spinal cord and brain

MLovelace NHMRC Science to Art

A fluorescent dye highlights the fine nerve fibres, which reach out to carry signals from one nerve cell to the next.

Observing how nerve cells in cultures respond to laser irradiation shows us how the laser acts on the cells.

This can help us understand how low level laser therapy–treatment, shown to be effective in clinical trials, can relieve some forms of chronic and acute pain.

The dawn of neurodevelopment – the migratory journey of neural precursors

Like a spectacular dawn, this image captures the dynamic development of brain cells, with their complex shapes and structures.

MLovelace Entry_Eureka

The blue ‘sun’ surrounded by radiating golden cells is a neurosphere, a spherical ball of cells used to model brain development: how cells multiply, move and grow.

Under the microscope, we can see immature nerve cells move out of the sphere and onto the glass, where they can differentiate into the various types of brain cells – with the correct stimulus. This allows scientists to model these critical processes in culture.

About the photos and the science:

Both images were captured on a Zeiss Meta confocal laser scanning microscope at the Bosch Institute Advanced Microscopy Facility, University of Sydney.

Read more about the photographer, Dr Michael Lovelace, and the science which underpins these images, at:

To speak to the photographer, or request print quality image files, contact:

Toni Stevens, Science in Public, on 0401 76 130 or

The best science writing of 2014 – win $7,000 and get your work in this year’s book

The Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing

You’ve probably seen them in the bookstore (or maybe in your Christmas stocking): the brightly coloured annual collection of Australia’s best science writing.

Here’s your chance to be in it – and maybe win some cash.

The Bragg UNSW Press Prize rewards the best short non-fiction piece on science written for a general audience.

First prize is $7,000. Two runners-up will each receive a prize of $1500. And I believe all submissions – whether shortlisted or not – will be considered for the book.

Last year astronomer Fred Watson got the gong for a chapter of his book Here come the ubernerds: Planets, Pluto and Prague.

And in 2012, the top prize went to Jo Chandler for her piece Storm front, a human perspective on climate change.

Entries close on Monday 31 March, 2014. Download the application form at:

Met a remarkable scientist? Get them the recognition they deserve

If you’ve met a brilliant scientist recently, drop them an email and nudge them nominate for one of these prizes.

Scientists aren’t always great at blowing their own trumpet – past winners often tell us that they were encouraged to nominate by colleagues and friends.

The Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science

Five of Australia’s best scientists and science teachers will be celebrated at a dinner hosted by the Prime Minster at Parliament House, and share in $500,000 worth of prize money.

  • Top scientists are eligible for the $300,000 major prize
  • Early to mid-career researchers could win one of two $50,000 prizes
  • And there are two $50,000 prizes for science teachers at primary and secondary level

Find more details, profiles of past winners and nomination forms, at:

FameLab Australia – Plain speaking essential. Music, song, poetry and props optional.

We’re looking for passionate early career researchers with a peer-reviewed discovery to present their science as part of the inaugural FameLab Australia – a new competition presented by the British Council, Cheltenham Festivals and Fresh Science.

At state finals across the country, 60 early career researchers will:

  • learn to find the story in their science and explain their work to a general audience
  • practice their media skills with journalists from TV, radio and the papers
  • get on stage to present their work to the public, with three minutes to inspire them…and our panel of judges.

The top two from each state will jet over to Perth for the national final, and the overall winner will head to the UK to represent Australia at the FameLab International Grand Final.

And for your diary – we’d love to see you at our FameLab state finals. Have a drink, hear some great stories and meet some of Australia’s future innovators.

More details at:

Eureka Prizes

At last year’s Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, we heard about: a ‘vaccine’ that stops mosquitoes from spreading dengue; a laser that knows when giant mining grinders will fail; lighter, strong armour for our troops in Afghanistan; and fatherhood – from a sea dragon’s perspective.

What interesting yarns will we uncover in 2014?

The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, now in their 25th year, celebrate Australian science in its many forms, with prizes for: research and innovation; leadership and commercialisation; science communication and journalism; and school science.

More details at:

L’Oréal Australia & New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowships

Nominations for this year’s $25,000 L’Oréal Australia & New Zealand For Women in Science Fellowships open in March.

Three Fellowships will be awarded in 2014, supporting three women researchers to consolidate their careers and rise to leadership positions in science.

Read more about past Fellows and the Fellowship program at:


Science in Public – our role

We’re a science writing, communication and PR business.  Our work is funded by the science world – from the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes to Nature. We’re keen to suggest interesting people and stories – and not just those of our clients’.

If you’re looking for ideas or people for features we know hundreds of science prize winners past, present, and future and are always happy to chew the fat about the developing themes in Australian science.

Feel free to pass these stories along to colleagues. And between bulletins, you can follow me on Twitter (@scienceinpublic) for more science news and story tips.