Dr Stephin Vervoort, WEHI and Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
2022 CSL Centenary Fellow
Dr Stephin Vervoort will use his CSL Centenary Fellowship to unravel fundamental steps in transcription of DNA into mRNA, and then apply that knowledge to identify possible small-molecule drugs to attack acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and other hard to treat cancers.
“We used to regard gene regulation as a fairly simple on/off system. We now know that things are much more complicated,” Stephin says.
“Now we understand that there’s a multi-layered regulatory network that controls when and where genes should be activated. It’s critical for normal development. In fact, when this regulatory system breaks, it can result in disease.”
Stephin studies a vital component of this network – RNA polymerase II. He describes it as a molecular factory. It transcribes DNA into mRNA and its work is regulated by many molecular factors.
“What we’ve also come to realise is that recurrent mutations in the key components that regulate this machine are causal factors for many blood cancers.
In particular, this dysregulation of transcription is a feature of AML. And these cancers are difficult to manage and treat.
Stephin’s passion is to deepen our understanding of transcriptional regulation and to apply it to cancer.
He joined Professor Ricky Johnstone’s team at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in 2015, where he established genome-wide investigations in transcription.
Now, with the support of the CSL Centenary Fellowship, he is setting up his own laboratory at WEHI where he plans to get to the heart of the matter. “I want to understand how RNA polymerase II works in a comprehensive and systemic manner,” he says.
“Then I want to understand how this is dysregulated in cancer. And finally I want to use that knowledge to identify possible small-molecule drugs that could target AML and other cancers.”
It’s a bold, multidisciplinary plan that will bring together molecular biology, state-of-the-art genomics, bioinformatics and small-molecule inhibitors. “Over the next decade, I hope my work will benefit cancer patients significantly by opening up new treatment avenues that have the potential to increase survival and improve overall quality of life,” Stephin says.
Photographs of Stephin Vervoort