Lawrence Creative Prize finalists

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is a $25,000 award for outstanding creativity in biomedical research by young scientists.  Here are the three finalists.  The winner will be announced at an awards luncheon on Wednesday 19 October at the UBS dining room in Sydney.  For more information call Niall on 0417 131 977 or

Greg Neely

Dr Greg Neely hunts for two different sorts of  genes—those that cause pain and those that make us more susceptible to heart attacks.

After completing his PhD in cellular immunology at the University of Calgary in Canada in 2004, he joined geneticist Josef Penninger in Austria to look at the genes associated with pain. He helped identify the first ever gene shown to play a role in synaesthesia—the crossing of the senses—by searching the genome of that laboratory workhorse, the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster).

Greg now leads a group at the Garvan Institute in Sydney that has already identified about 600 genes in the pain pathway of the flies.

By searching our own human genome for similar genes, Greg has been able to identify about 60 new pain genes and 80 new sudden cardiac death genes that we share with the fruit fly.

He has already validated two of these genes in mice and is working on verifying more.

Greg is overseas at present and is being represented at the awards ceremony by Garvan’s Neuroscience Research Program director Herbert Herzog.

Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat

Marie-Liesse was part of the team at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) that discovered the breast stem cell. Since then she’s been meticulously unravelling how and why they contribute to the progression of breast cancer.

It’s been well-documented that sustained exposure to oestrogen and progesterone is a risk factor for breast cancer.

When French-born Marie-Liesse came to Australia to join WEHI’s breast cancer group in 2004, she found that breast stem cells did not have receptors for those hormones.  Yet  breast stem cells were still highly sensitive to oestrogen and progesterone.

Drugs that exploit one of the pathways she identified in the process are in clinical trials to help maintain bone strength and treat breast cancer that has spread to the bones

She has now established a new laboratory at WEHI to focus on lung stem cells and their role in cancer, complementing and expanding on her earlier work on breast cancer stem cells and the part they play in spreading cancer.

Marie-Liesse is an advocate for keeping women scientists in research. She was a L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellow in 2010 and a delegate to the Women in Science and Engineering summit in Canberra this year.

Marc Pellegrini

Dr Marc Pellegrini is a physician turned researcher, whose discoveries about the immune system are being applied to clinical trials of cancer vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis.

As a specialist in infectious diseases, Marc tended to many patients with chronic viral infections like HIV and hepatitis, where the virus tricks the immune system to allow a certain level of infection, so the body never clears it entirely.

Current approaches to curing chronic infections tend to focus on generating a long-lived immune response to the specific disease, but Marc and his colleagues at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) have concentrated instead on how the immune response can be manipulated to fight the infection more effectively.

Marc, who completed his PhD in 2004, took the initiative to look at a cell-signalling hormone called interleukin-7 (IL-7), which is known to play a critical role in immune system development and maintenance.

He found that artificial IL-7 can clear an HIV-like chronic infection in mice.

This novel approach to a serious clinical problem may soon be complementing existing anti-viral chemotherapy in the very hospitals Marc in which continues to consult.