Using viruses to restore sight
Researcher restoring sight Elizabeth Rakoczy (UWA) wins $50,000 CSL Florey Medal for lifetime achievement
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The 2017 CSL Florey Medal will be presented at the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI) dinner on Wednesday 6 December in the Great Hall, Parliament House, Canberra
- Professor Elizabeth Rakoczy has developed a process to turn eye cells into bio-factories, making their own medication on the spot.
- This gene therapy uses a modified virus to carry a gene into cells in the eye, replacing the need for frequent, painful and costly eye injections.
- Elizabeth led the world’s first human gene therapy trial for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in the elderly.
- Past CSL Florey Medallists include Graeme Clark, Ian Frazer, and Nobel Laureates Barry Marshall and Robin Warren.
Elizabeth Rakoczy is modifying viruses to use their powers for good. She’s created a new gene therapy for wet AMD that is reversing vision loss in clinical trial patients. Her treatment means one injection instead of several per year.
Modified viruses are gene therapy’s delivery vehicles, taking genes directly into cells. Elizabeth first showed that they could carry a healthy replacement for a mutated gene that causes degeneration of the eye’s retina. She then showed they can deliver instructions for eye cells to produce their own treatment for wet AMD, a complex eye disease.
More than 112,000 Australians have wet AMD—the most devastating form of AMD—and up to 8,000 more commence treatment for it each year. Each injection of the current treatment costs about $2,000, and patients have six to eight per year. Costs will rise with Australia’s ageing population. Gene therapy offers an alternative.
Elizabeth hopes to adapt her bio-factory idea to other diseases to alleviate suffering.
The CSL Florey Medal has been presented every two years since 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS). The award recognises a lifetime of achievement in biomedical science and human health advancement. It carries a cash prize of $50,000 and has been supported by CSL since 2007.
“Professor Rakoczy is a quiet achiever, a world leader in gene therapy, and a key contributor to advancing international eye research,” says CSL’s Chief Scientist, Dr Andrew Cuthbertson. “CSL is proud to support this award which recognises excellence in research as well as creating role models for the next generation of medical researchers. Gene and cell therapies hold the potential to significantly reduce vision loss over a patient’s lifetime which is why work in this field is so important.”
“In winning the CSL Florey Medal, Professor Rakoczy joins an elite group of Australian medical researchers who have followed in the footsteps of Howard Florey,” says AIPS director Camille Thomson. “To quote Sir Robert Menzies, ‘In terms of world wellbeing, Florey was the most important man ever born in Australia’.”
Professor Elizabeth Rakoczy is the founding Director of the Department of Molecular Ophthalmology at Lions Eye Institute, University of Western Australia.
The CSL Florey Medal
The Florey Medal is awarded biennially to an Australian biomedical researcher for significant achievements in biomedical science and/or human health advancement. In addition to the silver medal, the award currently carries a prize of $50,000 due to the generous support of CSL Limited.
This award was established in 1998 by the Australian Institute of Policy and Science in honour of the Australian Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Sir Howard Florey, who developed penicillin.
The Florey Medal is part of the Tall Poppy Campaign which aims to recognise and promote scientific and intellectual excellence in Australia.
Past winners are:
2015 – Professor Perry Bartlett
Discovery of brain stem cells, transforming our understanding of the brain development and function.
2013 – Professor Ruth Bishop
Discovery of rotavirus and the fight against this virus that has killed millions of young children through acute gastroenteritis.
2011 – Professor Graeme Clark
Development of Australia’s bionic ear.
2009 – Professor John Hopwood
Diagnosis and treatment of genetically inherited disorders that affect children with clinical effects leading to progressive destruction of the brain and other organs.
2006 – Professor Ian Frazer
Research towards the development of vaccines against human papillomaviruses, including cervical cancer and genital warts affecting the lives of millions globally.
2004 – Professor Peter Colman
Structural biology research, particularly for the discovery of a new class of anti-influenza drug.
2002 – Professor Colin Masters
Work relating to Alzheimer’ disease.
2000 – Professor Jacques Miller
Discovery of the function of the thymus which signalled a seminal contribution to immunology.
1998 – Dr Robin Warren and Professor Barry Marshall
Discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.
The Florey Medal is hand sculpted by Michael Meszaros. Michael has lived as a sculptor in Melbourne for nearly four decades, producing a wide range of work ranging from major public pieces to his speciality of medals. He learned this from his father Andor, also a sculptor and medallist of international reputation.
This work is closely based on a portrait medal Andor made when Sir Howard Florey sat for him in 1963, commissioned by the Florey Institute at The University of Melbourne. Michael met Sir Howard at the time. Using Andor’s original as a guide, Michael has remodelled it in this size, adding a different inscription, designing a reverse and casting it in bright sterling silver.
The Australian Institute of Policy and Science (AIPS)
The Australian Institute of Policy and Science is an independent and non-partisan not-for-profit organisation first founded in 1932. They have grown with Australia’s public policy history and work to:
- increase public engagement in science
- promote excellence in research, innovation and the promotion and communication of science
- inform and influence policy and policy-making
- invest in a scientifically inspired, literate and skilled Australia that contributes to local and global social challenges.
AIPS achieves its objectives through an extensive network of partners spanning university, government, industry and community actors.