$25,000 Lawrence Creative Prize awarded for breast cancer research

Posted on behalf of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research

Discovery of the cellular ‘link’ between female hormones and the development of breast cancer has earned Walter and Eliza Hall Institute researcher Dr Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat the inaugural Lawrence Creative Prize from the Centenary Institute.

The $25,000 prize, from the Centenary Institute, was awarded to Dr Asselin-Labat at a ceremony in Sydney today. Dr Asselin-Labat was one of 33 early-career scientists who applied from universities and medical research institutes around Australia.

She said she was honoured to receive the Lawrence Creative Prize. “When I looked at the shortlisted candidates, I was very impressed by their achievements and I feel very privileged to be part of such a vibrant scientific community in Australia,” she said.

Dr Asselin-Labat was part of the institute team that discovered breast stem cells, believed to play a major role in the development of some breast cancers. The discovery published in 2006 caused a major shift in scientists’ understanding of how breast cancer develops.

As part of the team’s research into breast stem cells, Dr Asselin-Labat meticulously unravelled how breast stem cells contributed to the development of breast cancer, including the link between female hormones and breast stem cells, for which she received the Prize.

“We were surprised to find that, although the breast stem cells did not have receptors for the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, they were still exquisitely sensitive to their effects,” Dr Asselin-Labat said. “It helped to explain the decades of evidence linking sustained exposure to oestrogen and progesterone and increased risk of breast cancer.”

Further research also revealed how these breast stem cells develop into the wide range of cells found in a normal breast, and how some cells are more likely to become aggressive cancer cells.

“Breast stem cells are critical to normal breast development, but if the breast becomes cancerous the stem cells are likely to be contributing to the problem,” Dr Asselin-Labat said.

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

In 2011, Dr Asselin-Labat established her own laboratory at the institute, and switched her focus to identifying the cells at the root of lung cancers.

“I’m interested in looking at how lung stem cells are regulated and what drives tumour initiation in the lungs, using similar techniques and knowledge generated from our breast cancer research,” she said. “There is a real need for research into lung cancer, and there is a lot of work to be done.”

Dr Asselin-Labat 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.

Institute director Professor Doug Hilton said he was delighted to see Dr Asselin-Labat recognised for her contributions to health and medical research. “It is wonderful to see early-career researchers such as Marie-Liesse recognised for their remarkable achievements. She is an excellent researcher and her work has strong capability to translate to very real health outcomes, and to improve breast and lung cancer treatments,” he said.

The Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize is a new initiative to promote medical research and recognise existing young research talent in Australia. The Prize was created in honour of Neil Lawrence, inaugural chairman of The Centenary Institute Foundation.

For more information contact Penny Fannin, Strategic Communications Manager, on

+61 3 9345 2345, +61 417 125 700 or fannin@wehi.edu.au.