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SVI celebrates 60 years of medical research success

Posted: 21st May 2018

On Monday 23rd April, St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research (SVI) celebrated its 60th anniversary at Government House.

“It’s fitting that on our 60th anniversary, we are surrounded by those who have helped fulfill the vision of our founder, famous racehorse trainer and philanthropist Jack Holt, to be a ‘school’ of research that strives to provide hope to those who suffer with diseases that are unfortunately, all too common to many of us,” said SVI Director, Professor Tom Kay.

Since opening its doors in 1958, Melbourne’s 3rd oldest medical research institute has built a worldwide reputation as a leader in fundamental research.  From the outset, SVI has had a strong focus on the structure of proteins, known as the building blocks of life. SVI’s first Director Pehr Edman and junior laboratory technician, Geoffrey Begg, created the world’s first automated protein sequencing machine, affectionately named ‘Matilda’. Its second Director, Dr Frank Morgan, evolved this interest into the three-dimensional study of protein molecules, known as protein crystallography, which is essential to inform the development of drugs for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

Her Excellency, the Honourable Linda Dessau AC, Governor of Victoria, who hosted the event, said, “On behalf of the people of Victoria, I can say that we are immensely proud of St Vincent’s Institute of Medical Research.  The Institute’s work is defined by a clear focus on the common but stubborn diseases that present major health challenges for Australians today. Happy 60th birthday, and we look forward to celebrating many more birthdays and many more research successes with you in the future”.

SVI’s third Director, Professor Jack Martin, who still works at SVI, also left his mark when he strengthened SVI’s research into cancer and bone research.  SVI’s discoveries led to a greater understanding how the cells of the immune system contribute to the formation and activity of bone-dissolving cells, and how locally generated growth factors and other molecules can influence bone structure; all relevant to the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.

During Professor Martin’s tenure, SVI also became known for its studies of protein kinases, the enzymes in the body that change protein function through the addition of phosphate groups. Throughout the 1990s kinase research at SVI focused on one particular protein, AMP-activated protein kinase (AMPK), which has a key role in regulating energy expenditure. The Institute continues to make inroads into the role of metabolism, applied particularly to heart disease and obesity, to this day.

The Institute’s current Director, Professor Tom Kay, has applied his extensive experience in immunology to the study of transplantation of pancreatic islets as a treatment for diabetes. Since 2008, 46 people with type 1 diabetes have been helped by islet transplantation and SVI’s diabetes research group has grown to be the largest in Australia.

In 2008 SVI established the Stem Cell Regulation Unit, focusing on research in the formation of blood constituents from stem cells, with a specific focus on their role in lymphomas and leukemia. More recently, SVI has developed a specific interest in the regulation of the molecule known as RNA, and how this is important in normal and cancer cell development.

In 2015, the O’Brien Institute merged with SVI, delivering a bigger, stronger research body and expanding SVI’s activities into the regenerative medicine space. And in more recent years, SVI’s expertise into rare cancers such as osteosarcoma, myelodysplastic syndrome and Fanconi Anaemia, has received much support and recognition from the research community, funding bodies and patients.

“Today the Institute has a dedicated team of 180 staff and students, who are committed to improving the health and life expectancy of Australians. With an ever-increasing pool of talented researchers and state-of-the-art facilities, an exciting time lies ahead for SVI,” said Professor Kay.

You can read the Governor's speech here.