Most of you will know that SVI’s purpose is to improve the treatment of common diseases. But it remains a continual challenge to explain how our scientists are doing this. Recent focus on the idea of innovation, a word that is everywhere at present, is a helpful development. This has been led by many policy makers but, as my colleague Doug Hilton has pointed out, none more so than Barack Obama throughout his time in office and as recently as this week in his State of the Union speech. It is electrifying for scientists to hear the high priority the President places on science. Innovation has also been a focus in Australia through politicians and policy makers in the Government and the community, for example the Chief Scientist and the Business Council of Australia. The last three episodes of ABC Radio National’s Science Show have focused on innovation in Australia.
Innovation, which means applying discoveries to create value, is a word that succinctly articulates our purpose. It is not only about discovery or invention – which Australia has been very good at – but doing something useful and productive with that discovery. Australia is less adept at this step. And in fact academics are not very good at it partly because they become ensnared in a constant round of grant application and review.
What can we at SVI do to be more innovative, more useful to the community? Key ingredients in innovation include a highly educated work force (tick), very good technology (tick) – and above all collaboration across disciplines. For biologists, this means working closely with clinicians and bringing in skills we are not strong in, including mathematics and chemistry.
We particularly need to be better at working with the medicines industry, which is in period of tremendous change. Industry brings a different perspective to problems because it focuses on what is needed to bring medicines to the clinic. Industry also is very strong in technology, often having resources unaffordable to us or at least complementary to our technology. There is no doubt that industry is also interested in driving innovation and several large companies have established innovation research institutes to advance this.
Another newly prominent word, to me at least, is “pre-competitive”. This means seeking collaborative engagement that is not too burdened by the tactical games of intellectual property, financial reward and business advantage. It implies freely sharing information for all to find a way forward with complex problems. This is a shift in balance because science has been at times a highly secretive and competitive business. This shift is in tune with community expectations of reducing duplication of effort and making the best use of scarce resources.
At SVI in 2013 our challenge is to capitalise on our main asset, our people, and enable them to engage with new technology and new collaborators so that they can innovate their way towards new solutions for complex diseases.
Focus on type 1 diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is one of the most common chronic diseases in children: it occurs more frequently than cancer, cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. More than 140,000 Australians live with type 1 diabetes and around six more are diagnosed every day. Researchers in SVI’s Immunology and Diabetes Unit focus on the fundamental questions in type 1 diabetes: which genes are involved, how the insulin-producing cells are killed, why the immune system attacks them in the first place and how to develop better treatments for people with the disease.
SVI's newest recruit, Dr Mark Chong, grimaces when he speaks of the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought in the research labs at New York University, where he worked as a postdoc from 2004-2009.
“Some labs lost millions of dollars worth of equipment, all their freezers, and around 10,000 experimental mice drowned. It will take a long time for the labs to get back on their feet.”
He goes on to say that the environment in the lab where he worked was tough, even before the onset of the natural disaster. “About 50% of people who go there to do their postdoc end up leaving science. You don’t go there to be nurtured, you go because the head of the lab is a true pioneer, there is cutting-edge work, lots of funding, and everyone there has ambitions to publish a big paper.”
The skills that Mark learnt during his postdoctoral stint have stood him in good stead since then. “I realised early on that if you want to be at the cutting edge, you have to be willing to engage in new technologies and you can’t rely on commercially available reagents – you need to be able to develop your own. We have often had to write our own computational programs to analyse results.”
Following his stay in New York, Mark worked at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for 3 years, before deciding to join the Immunology and Diabetes Unit at SVI at the start of 2013 as Head of the Genomics and Immunology Laboratory.
Mark is keenly interested in what is known as the dark matter of the genome – small chains of nucleotides called microRNAs. Until recently, biology teachers taught a simple formula to explain how proteins – our cell’s workhorses – are made: DNA makes RNA makes protein. Identified only recently, it has now been shown that many small pieces of RNA, called microRNAs, do not encode proteins, but rather exert their influence over those RNAs that do. Mark’s work has uncovered the role that microRNAs play during the development of T cells, the cells responsible for autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes.
Mark is excited at the possibilities that lie ahead: he has plans to expand his group, writing his own programs as he goes.
In the top ten
Congratulations to Shreya Bhattacharya, who was awarded a Dora Lush PhD Scholarship from the NHMRC. Shreya is doing her PhD under the supervision of Dr Emma Baker and Dr Carl Walkley in SVI’s Stem Cell Regulation Unit.
PhD student Alvin Ng was awarded second place for his oral presentation at the Annual Cancer Therapeutics CRC Postgraduate Student Symposium held late last year.
In 2012 several individual donors funded student scholarships, which will be awarded this month. These include the Barry and Jenny Jackson Foundation, the Margaret Mocatta Scholarship (Tony and Margaret Reeves) the Janko Inge Foundation Scholarship and the Colin North Scholarship.
A number of Trusts and Foundations have supported SVI research with grants that allow researchers to purchase cutting-edge equipment to carry out their work.
The Margaret Walkom Bequest has supported SVI cancer research for the second year running, with a grant to Drs Urmi Dhagat and Sophie Broughton in the Structural Biology Unit.
The Agilent Foundation and The Harold and Cora Brennan Benevolent Trust, managed by Equity Trustees Limited supported the purchase of a piece of equipment that will be used to examine specific proteins involved in cancer spread and heart disease.
The Victorian Community Foundation – James & Vera Lawson Trust, managed by ANZ Trustees provided a grant to Dr Stephen Tonna for the purchase of imaging equipment to study the effect of specific drugs on the spread of cancer cells.
The Marian & E.H. Flack Trust provided funding to Dr Tom Brodnicki to purchase equipment to analyse the genes involved in type 1 diabetes.
In the news
SVI’s Louise Purton received considerable media coverage in February this year for her research on the stem cells found in umbilical cord blood.
In 2008, Melbourne leukaemia patient Graham Barnell was the eighth person in the world to receive a revolutionary stem cell treatment in Seattle. The experimental therapy to replace his diseased bone marrow used stem cells from umbilical cord blood that had been multiplied in the laboratory.
At first, the treatment was a success. The father-of-two was cleared of the rare and normally fatal type of acute myeloid leukaemia. However, after battling infection after infection, he died from pneumonia in 2009. His wife, Samantha MacRae, believes that if a similar treatment had been available in Australia, things may have turned out differently. But even 4 years later, patients still go overseas for treatment.
The treatment is not more widely available because there are a number of problems with its use. Associate Professor Louise Purton explains, “While the fact that you don’t need a perfect match between a patient and the cord blood is a huge bonus, the cells found within umbilical cord blood are more immature than those found in bone marrow, and there is a considerable delay before they can take over all the important tasks that mature blood cells play in the body.” Louise goes on to explain that there are also problems with the number of blood cells available from a single cord.
Louise’s research aims to overcome some of these issues by hijacking the same methods that the body uses to regulate the development of blood cells.
She has previously shown that activating or inhibiting the vitamin A signaling pathway can both increase the number of immature stem cells and speed up the process to convert the cells into mature blood cells.
"The ultimate goal will be to start off with one cord blood unit, treat it with the vitamin A compound that causes the stem cell numbers to increase, then take a portion of that and culture it with the one that will cause the stem cells to become more mature, combine the two, and transplant them.”
Louise has received human ethics approval to start collecting umbilical cord samples from babies born at St Vincent's Private Hospital over the next 4 years to use in her research.
For Graham Barnell, travelling to Seattle for the experimental procedure offered the best chance for treatment. A bone marrow match could not be found for him despite a nine-month search and an unexpanded cord blood transplant was unlikely to work, given the shortcomings in treating adults.
Accessing an expanded cord blood treatment in Australia is essential for people who can't find a bone marrow match, says Graham’s partner, "With those stem cells I think you've got more options for people.”
Louise says, “The ultimate dream is to get the treatment up and running in Melbourne, but that’s still in the future."
Paving the way
The Diabetes Australia Research Trust (DART) announced its most recent round of funding late last year at a dinner held to mark World Diabetes Day. Receiving grants from the Trust were SVI researchers Prof Tom Kay, Dr Mark Chong and A/Prof Helen Thomas, who had the opportunity to meet Olympic gold medalist and Indigenous leader, Cathy Freeman at the dinner.
World Diabetes Day is celebrated on the 14th of November, the birthday of Frederick Banting, one of the pioneers who discovered insulin over 90 years ago. Prior to this discovery, most children diagnosed with type 1 diabetes were expected to live less than a year. The only treatment involved putting them on a “starvation diet”, which kept their blood sugar levels as low as possible, and only marginally prolonged their lives.
While the introduction of insulin changed type 1 diabetes from a rare fatal disease to a chronic condition, those living with the disease have to closely monitor their blood sugar, adjust their insulin intake accordingly and live with the risk of related complications, including nerve damage, eye, kidney and cardiovascular disease.
Diabetes researchers such as SVI’s DART grant awardees continue to pave the way towards understanding why the disease develops and finding better ways to treat it.
Two minutes with Andrew
Dr Andrew Sutherland recently joined the Immunology and Diabetes Unit at SVI. He did his PhD at the Garvan Institute in Sydney, and then spent 3 years as a postdoc at the Harvard School of Public Health.
My childhood ambition was to... play cricket for Australia.
My first job was... stacking shelves at the local supermarket.
My worst job was... relief teaching in an English boarding school.
I got into research because... I always enjoyed science at school and university so it was a natural progression.
The hardest thing I have ever done was... survive my first winter in Boston. -15C plus wind chill is a lot colder than it sounds.
My scientific role model is... anyone who approaches the world with curiosity and an open mind.
If I wasn't doing research, I would... play cricket for Australia.
If I could live anywhere I would ... alternate summers between Australia and Edinburgh or Montreal.
Iconic morning tea
Melbourne icon, The Hotel Windsor, was the perfect backdrop for the launch of a society named after another of the city’s icons, racehorse trainer and SVI founder Jack Holt. Seventy guests attended the launch of The Jack Holt Society, which was held over morning tea in December 2012.
The launch was a wonderful opportunity to thank those who have nominated SVI in their Will or established a memorial fund in the name of a loved one. On the day these supporters were welcomed into the Society. Members include Brenda Shanahan (The George Carson Memorial Bequest Fund), Arthur Stokes, Gerald Snowden, Pamela McCorkell, Bernadette Dennis and Cas Bennetto. Since the event, other supporters have joined the Society, revealing that they have left a bequest to SVI, including Susan Alberti AO, Chair of the SVI Foundation.
The Society honours Jack Holt, whose bequest of 200,000 pounds in 1951 enabled the establishment of SVI. He is proof that one person’s legacy can make a profound difference. The next Jack Holt Society gathering will be a morning tea held at SVI on Monday, 8th April.
If you would like to talk to us about leaving a bequest to SVI and joining The Jack Holt Society please contact Clare Lacey, Bequest Manager on (03) 9288 2480.
A 50th with a difference
A Sunday afternoon at SVI normally sees PhD students and researchers working on their experiments, but the 2nd of December was not a usual Sunday. SVI Foundation board member Benni Aroni and his wife Roz hosted an event at SVI to celebrate Roz’s 50th birthday with the aim of introducing her friends to a topic close to her heart: medical research.
“I have always really loved science and scientific research, so for my birthday I wanted to find a way of sharing this passion with my friends and family. I had been on several tours of SVI and loved each tour so it seemed the perfect way of showing real science to my guests in a fun way,” Roz said.
We thank both Roz and her husband Benni for their generosity and for assisting us promote the Institute in this special way. In lieu of donations to SVI for her birthday, Roz raised an impressive $10,000.
If you would like to raise funds for SVI in lieu of gifts for your next birthday, SVI has made it easier by enabling you to create your own online fundraising page. To find out more visit [url=http://svi.gofundraise.com.au]http://svi.gofundraise.com.au[/url]
Guests gathered at the Telstra Conference Centre, last December, to hear about the potential that exists for Australia in the convergence of the Asian Century and the age of biotechnology.
When developing the forum’s theme, Tom Kay felt that the topic would lend itself to in depth discussion on the role science will play in this exciting new era. “The purpose of the forum was to hear how the relationships between Australian and Asia, which are based on science but also built very much on friendship, can be fostered in the 21st century and how they are moving into the future,” Tom said.
The keynote speaker Professer Zihe Rao, who completed his PhD at SVI in the eighties and is now President of the Biophysical Society of China, described how investment by the Chinese government is leading to a great expansion of medical research and its outcomes, with his field of structural biology one of those which is thriving.
Professor Andrew Wilks, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of biotech company SYN|thesis med chem, described his concerns about the lack of translation of Australian basic and pre-clinical research into clinical/commercial outcomes. His company is tackling this by approaching business with a global outlook - SYN|thesis med chem has its head office in Melbourne, lab facilities in China and marketing arm based in the U.S.
Ms Clea Wiebenga, Senior Manager of ANZ's Asia Pacific Desk, spoke of the importance of understanding the Chinese market, describing China as “Boomtown”, and of the opportunities that exist for Australians who understand how to engage with the Chinese business community.
SVI tweeted live from the forum so those not present could share the insights delivered by the speakers. Look out for details of the 2013 forum which is to be held on Monday, 20th May at BMW Edge.
The science of #socialmedia
Did you know that Australia holds the highest global average for time spent per month engaging with social media? Over recent years, the digital media space has grown at a rapid rate.
While it has taken a little while to catch on, the healthcare, science and medical research sector is now a major player in all areas of social media including Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and professional online forums. SVI has now joined this community, launching a Facebook page and Twitter account.
Social media is an effective way for us to share information with key stakeholders including our supporters, the media, government officials and industry peers.
In keeping with the digital theme, SVI are also launching an online version of ‘The Edman’. If you have provided SVI with your email address in the past we will include you on the first version of the e-news.
For SVI’s latest research news and to be the first to hear about upcoming events you can like our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter.
@SVIResearch or follow Tom Kay @TomKaySVI
Back to where it all began
After living with type 1 diabetes for 36 years, South Australian Susan Czernich’s life was transformed following a transplant of insulin-producing islets. Before the transplant, Susan’s blood-sugar levels could drop dramatically without warning, greatly affecting her ability to perform daily activities such as driving a car. Thanks to the transplant, she has now been given a new lease on life.
“For the first time in 36 years my body is starting to produce insulin for itself. I now have less hypos (hypoglycemic episodes) require far less insulin by pump and even feel well,” Susan said.
Introduced to Victoria in 2007, the islet transplant program was the result of five years of combined research by SVI and JDRF. Nearly six years on, 20 Australians have now benefited from the program and SVI continues research in the area, striving to make advances and improvements to the treatment.
In February, Susan visited SVI for the first time, meeting Associate Professor Helen Thomas who was instrumental in getting the program on its feet. On the tour, fellow transplant recipient Pat Snell, her husband Bill and SVI supporter Gerald Snowden joined Susan to see first-hand the research that underpinned the transplant success and learnt about other projects the team are researching.
Friends of SVI
For 10 years the 1000 Club has been a vital group of SVI supporters and their contribution has made a difference to many of SVI’s students, shaping a new generation of researchers.
We thank the 1000 Club for their generosity and support which, since its inception, has helped fund 32 PhD and 25 Honours students.
In order to keep up with current fundraising trends and to continue to recognise and acknowledge our wonderful supporters, in 2013 we are developing a program called Friends of SVI. The 1000 Club will now be amalgamated into Friends of SVI.
This new approach will engage a broader supporter base of all our loyal donors and be an encouragement for new friends to embrace SVI.
Each year, a small number of exclusive events will be run for the Friends of SVI. The first event will be held this month. Following the success of last year’s 1000 Club event ‘Food Matters’, it will focus on food with an emphasis on nutrition in sport.
The event, ‘Food for thought in Sport’ will be held on Tuesday, 19th March from 6pm until 8pm at SVI. Sports Science Director at Collingwood Football Club, Dr David Buttifant will be the guest speaker.
To find out more details on both the event and Friends of SVI please call Sandra on (03) 9288 2480.
My Fair Lady Ball
This year Lodge Amicus and Seavic Lodge of Freemasons Victoria have donated half the proceeds made from their annual ball to SVI. ‘The My Fair Lady Ball’ was held on the 23rd of February at The Plaza Ballroom Regent Theatre and raised funds for SVI research into type 1 diabetes. On behalf of SVI, Foundation Chair Susan Alberti hosted a table on the night. SVI thanks Lodge Amicus and Seavic Lodge of Freemans Victoria for their generous support and the ball’s major sponsor Care Parks.
Barrie and Margaret Webb – Open Gardens
For one day in January, Barrie and Margaret Webb opened up the gates of their beautiful seaside estate in Shoreham as part of Open Gardens. The couple generously donated proceeds from the day to SVI. Over 4000 people visited their home to view the stunning provincial garden. SVI thanks Barrie and Margaret for their kind donation.