Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize – photos and short profiles

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In this post are images and short profiles on the three 2013 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize finalists.

For interviews and more information contact Tamzin Byrne, tamzin@scienceinpublic.com.au, 0432 974 400

Anne Abbott, Monash University

Preventing strokes with lifestyle and drugs, not surgery

Anne_Abbott_PhotoAnne Abbott is transforming the prevention of carotid artery stroke. Anne, a neurologist, has shown that in most patients a healthy lifestyle and medication are now better for stroke prevention than carotid artery surgery or stenting, procedures which are still widely recommended. But that wasn’t enough. She’s has successfully campaigned to get the international medical establishment to recognise that we no longer need to use the knife to prevent these strokes.

In 2009 Anne published a study showing that lifestyle and medication have become more effective, safer and cheaper than invasive procedures for preventing the 10% of all strokes caused by symptomless narrowing of the origin of the internal carotid artery, the main blood vessel supplying blood to the brain. But then she did something few other researchers have done. She took her results out of the laboratory and used them to initiate change in the approach to treating stroke worldwide.

As one of the three shortlisted contenders for this year’s Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize, Anne, an adjunct Associate Professor in the School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine at Monash University, now wants to measure what can be achieved with ‘current best practice’ lifestyle and medication in preventing stroke and other complications of arterial disease in patients with carotid artery narrowing.  This has not been done before, and it’s the way she proposes to use the $25,000 prize, should she win.

The initial impetus for this work was a spinoff of her PhD studies at the National Stroke Research Institute in Melbourne, where she was trying to identify patients with carotid artery disease who would especially benefit from surgery. To her surprise, she found evidence that stroke rates had fallen dramatically over the previous two decades in patients who did not undergo carotid surgery. She pursued this observation more rigorously in a post-doctoral fellowship at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and confirmed her suspicion that non-invasive measures are now better for stroke prevention than surgery or stenting. These procedures are expensive and can cause immediate stroke and other serious complications.

“I soon learned that publishing my results was not enough to change practice. I became aware of strong international influences (particularly from the USA).” Since then she has successfully engaged national and international experts to encourage a world-wide swing away from a surgical approach to stroke prevention. When the findings are fully adopted, she says, around the world each year hundreds of thousands of patients will be spared surgery and billions of health care dollars will be saved.

And she has achieved all this, while establishing and raising a family.

William (Will) Ritchie, the Centenary Institute

Fighting cancer with statistics

Will Ritchie imageWill Ritchie has used statistics to unmask a molecular mechanism that cells use to regulate the levels of individual proteins. Future development of this work could lead to drug therapies for leukaemia, Alzheimer’s disease, cardiac disease and liver cancer.

In a little over a decade since the publication of the human genome, molecular biologists have gone from following one or two genes or proteins in a cell to tracking hundreds simultaneously—but they can only do so with the help of biostatisticians to winnow the enormous amounts of data produced.

Dr Ritchie, of the Centenary Institute, is one such. He has developed computer algorithms that have unmasked “intron retention” as a molecular mechanism used by cells to regulate the levels of individual proteins. The future development of this work could well lead to new drug therapies. As one of the three shortlisted contenders for this year’s Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize, Will proposes to put the $25,000 prize towards validating his findings and providing medical laboratories with an easy and fast tool to detect intron retention.

Like the paper of books and magazines, the small pieces of genetic material carrying the code from which individual proteins are made often need to be trimmed before use. This involves the recognition by special compounds of introns, or bits of code that need to be chopped out. If the introns are retained, the genetic material in which they occur is pulped by the cell. So, by regulating the level of the recognition compounds, cells can regulate the level of intron retention, and thereby the level of specific proteins.

Already, Will and his research colleagues have determined that this intron retention mechanism is widespread, regulating the level of hundreds of proteins, some of them significant in disease conditions. He now wants to determine more precisely the scope of this new protein regulatory mechanism, as well as making his tool for detecting intron retention quicker and easier to use.

Connie Wong, Monash University

Using diet to cope with the aftermath of stroke

Connie Wong 1Connie Wong thinks we may be able to prevent early deaths following stroke with a fibre-based diet. She initially used innovative microscope techniques to determine how stroke weakens the immune system. Now she is studying how it also induces leakiness in the gut wall, leading to infection and an upsurge in deaths. And the solution may well lie in diet.

That’s the ambitious and innovative research program proposed by Dr Wong of the Department of Immunology at Monash University, one of the three shortlisted contenders for this year’s $25,000 Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize.

Stroke is the second leading cause of mortality in Australia, resulting in more than 10% of all deaths. Of the survivors, over 60% die within a year or become dependent on others. The cost to the community annually is more than $2 billion. “So any increase in understanding the mechanisms and consequences of stroke that results in more efficient treatment could have enormous social and economic benefits,” says Dr Wong.

In a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Calgary in Canada, Connie showed that stroke triggers a release of compounds by the nervous system, seemingly to reduce the level of inflammation in the brain. But this is at the cost of weakening the response of the immune system to infection generally. In particular, Connie found that these compounds change the behaviour of the white blood cells known as invariant natural killer T cells. As a result the body becomes increasingly susceptible to infection after a stroke, and that correlates with a subsequent upsurge in deaths from infectious diseases.

Now Connie wants to investigate a linked observation that the gut wall becomes more permeable immediately following a stroke, allowing normally harmless gut bacteria to move into the body where they can initiate infection. She suspects that the combination of the leakiness of the gut and the reduced ability of the immune system to guard against bacteria, and that may be the cause of increased vulnerability to infection after a stroke. She now wants to explore if this can be alleviated by an appropriate, fibre-based diet.

About the Centenary Institute

The Centenary Institute is an independent leader in medical research seeking improved treatments and cures for cancer, cardiovascular, autoimmune, liver, genetic and infectious diseases. It is working to discover new prevention, early diagnosis and treatment options to enable each generation to live longer, healthier lives than the one before. Centenary’s affiliation with the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and the University of Sydney means that our discoveries can be quickly applied to the fight against disease in the clinic. More at: www.centenary.org.au.

About the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is an exciting initiative to promote medical research in Australia and recognise the young talent that already exists in the field.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is awarded for creative biomedical research excellence in its broadest definition, including trans-disciplinary research.

The Prize is marked by a perpetual hand-blown glass trophy by Nick Mount, with a smaller replica for the winner. In 2013, $25,000 will be awarded to the winner, equally split between a personal award and support for a scientific project or travel.

Two other highly commended finalists will each receive $5,000 to pursue their research.

“Exceptional young scientists can be hard to keep in Australia and we hope this award will not only celebrate their achievements but also encourage a domestic culture of brilliance in this truly important field,” said Centenary Institute Executive Director, Professor Mathew Vadas AO.