Inaugural Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize for Melbourne researcher to tackle lung cancer

Centenary, Media releases

The winner of the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, from Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI).

Having unravelled key information on how and why breast stem cells contribute to the progression of breast cancer, she is now turning to the challenge of lung cancer.

Her prize was announced today, Wednesday 19 October 2011, at a lunch at UBS in Sydney.

She received a cheque for $25,000 and a “fruit of knowledge” glass sculpture.

The purpose of the Prize is to encourage Australia’s best young biomedical researchers to stay in Australia and build their careers here.

“When I came here 7 years ago I was attracted to the science in Australia.”

“It’s fantastic for young scientists to be given the chance to win an award like this and gives you the confidence to give your own creativity a go.”

“Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer and is very difficult to treat.  We want to apply the knowledge we’ve acquired on breast cancer to the lung.”

“We suspect stem cells exist in the lung and we want to find them and see if they have a role in lung cancer.”

“The prize is an honour and a great boost for my confidence. It’s exciting to see the business community supporting science in this way.”

“The scientific judging panel has been astounded at the quality of the applications. Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat is a worthy winner of the inaugural prize,” said Centenary Institute Executive Director, Professor Mathew Vadas.

33 applications were received from early-career scientists from universities and medical research institutes around Australia.

The other finalists were Greg Neely from the Garvan Institute in Sydney and Marc Pellegrini, also from WEHI:

  • Greg hunts for two different sorts of genes—those that cause pain and those that make us more susceptible to heart attacks.
  • Marc’s discoveries about the immune system are being applied to clinical trials of cancer vaccines and treatments for HIV and hepatitis.

The Prize honours Neil Lawrence, the Inaugural Chairman of The Centenary Institute Foundation. Neil and his wife Caroline hold Centenary Institute very near to their hearts, as they are both passionate about advancing the field of medical research so that all Australians can live longer, healthier lives.

“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 Professor Vadas.

“We acknowledge the generosity of our sponsors and thank them for making this prize possible.”

Major sponsors: FOXTEL, Mindshare, stw group.

Supporting sponsors: Crosby | Textor and Deloitte

Event sponsor: UBS

Media sponsor: The Australian

  • Mathew Vadas is available to speak about the finalists and Marie-Liesse.
  • For images, backgrounder, and full release go to: or call Andrew Wight on +61 (3) 9398 1416, +61 (422) 982 829.


Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat

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

Now, she has established a new laboratory at WEHI to focus on lung stem cells and their role in cancer. While the work complements and expands her earlier studies, starting her own research group was a big step.

It is both for her creative approach to the discovery of breast stem cells and her willingness to apply the lessons of her previous research to another field entirely that Marie-Liesse has won the 2011 Lawrence Creative Prize.

It’s been well-documented that sustained exposure to the female hormones of oestrogen and progesterone is a risk factor for breast cancer. But when French-born Marie-Liesse came to Australia to join WEHI’s breast cancer group in 2004, she found that breast stem cells had no receptors for either of these hormones, yet were still highly sensitive to them.

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

Already successful and well regarded in her field, Marie-Liesse chose not to continue in breast cancer research, but to take on a whole new area. So she needed to come to understand the diseases in which lung stem cells were involved, needed to acquire new technical skills to study lung tissue, and needed to meet the key players and to identify the cutting edge questions in the field.

This was all at an institute where no-one else is undertaking lung cancer research.

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.


Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne (photo credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo)

Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne (photo credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo)
Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne (photo credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo)
Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat, The Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne (photo credit: Sam D’Agostino, SDP Photo)