Tom says

At the start of another year there are many good outcomes and exciting things to tell you about – but there is also the uncertainty of our funding over the coming year. We have had excellent outcomes in many areas of SVI’s activity – a very good 2016 NHMRC Project Grant outcome (as previously reported), several cancer-related grants, and, recently, positive outcomes in Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) funding. These include two fellowships for young diabetes researchers – Satoru Akazawa and Andrew Sutherland – and a major grant to a collaborative team from SVI and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI) led by Stuart Mannering (SVI) and Ed Stanley (MCRI). 

The good funding results, many going to early/mid career researchers, indicate a healthy future for SVI and a new generation taking shape. Remarkably, despite all this good news, our researchers will still be relying on the help we get from the SVI Foundation. 

The SVI Foundation is undergoing a period of renewal. After more than 12 years at the helm as Chair and doing literally everything possible for us, Sue Alberti is moving on to be Patron of the Foundation. Sue has hand-passed her role to an exciting new team captain in Karen Inge. SVI is very fortunate to have someone of Karen’s calibre to steer us through the next phase of the Foundation’s development. 

Additionally, the Foundation Board has a new star recruit in Kallie Blauhorn, who will bring extensive experience in philanthropy from her time at the JDRF. There will be several other changes in the Foundation – we farewell Directors who have been with us for many years, notably Benni Aroni and Karen Plant – and there will also be new people joining the team. This is exactly as it should be. The Foundation plays an ever more important part in SVI’s funding and is responsible for our sound financial position even if there are ongoing year-by-year challenges. SVI’s Main Board also welcomes two new members, Fiona Rowland and Tony Reeves. 

Finally, in the spirit of renewal and collaboration that is so important to us, we congratulate Michael Parker on his new role at the University of Melbourne as Director of the Bio21 Institute. This is a great tribute to Michael as a scientist and leader. This will be a joint appointment with SVI, where he will continue to lead SVI’s Structural Biology Unit. It is a real coup for both institutions to pursue this path of a shared effort in structural biology and to work closely together on this joint venture. I thank Shitij Kapur, the new Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences at The University of Melbourne and his colleagues for working so cooperatively to help establish Michael’s new role. 

Repairing the molecular machine

A bone-marrow transplant from her baby brother Thomas saved Christina Curkowskyj’s life when she was just 3 years old. 

Christina was diagnosed with the rare genetic disease Fanconi Anaemia as an infant. The disease leads to bone marrow failure at an average age of 7 years and an increased predisposition to the development of cancer. 

While her brother’s healthy bone marrow cured Christina’s blood disorder, her mother Tania Kutny says that the now 18-year-old still suffers from a range of health problems caused by the disease, including severe scoliosis, respiratory disease and an increased risk of cancer as she ages.

SVI researcher Dr Andrew Deans and his collaborators from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK recently published a paper describing a breakthrough that will allow them to uncover the mechanisms that lie behind the disease. 

Fanconi Anaemia is caused by mutations in any one of a number of genes known collectively as the FANC genes. These encode proteins that work together – as a kind of molecular machine – to repair damaged DNA. When DNA damage occurs in someone who carries a FANC mutation, it cannot be repaired, meaning that their risk of cancer is hundreds of times higher than in healthy people.

Published in the prestigious journal Molecular Cell in December 2016, Andrew’s work describes how the group has been able to reconstitute the FANC ‘machine’ in the test-tube. This has allowed them to determine how the proteins fit and function together and will be an optimal tool to enable them to screen for drugs to treat the disorder.

Andrew says, “We are constantly exposed to factors which damage our DNA – for example, UV light, cigarette smoke and certain chemicals. FANC proteins work together to repair this DNA damage.”

He says that the complexity of this machine, made up of at least ten proteins, has meant that reconstituting it in the test-tube has, until now, been impossible. This has slowed progress in understanding the disease because it hasn’t been possible to determine exactly how all the different FANC proteins collaborate to perform their DNA damage repair function.

Andrew says that one complication of treating people with Fanconi Anaemia is that their cells are particularly sensitive to the toxic effects of chemotherapeutic drugs, meaning that if they develop cancer, many of these drugs cannot be used.

“The only current treatments for the disease are bone marrow transplant, life-long surveillance for cancer and then limited options when cancer arises. Our system offers a way to screen for drugs that can be used to repair the original defect. In addition, because mutations that cause Fanconi Anaemia are found in different places across many different genes, we can use our system to “personalise” the complex – specifically recreating a mutation that is found in a particular patient.”

“This discovery will help us identify how Fanconi Anaemia arises, why the cancer predisposition occurs and will help us develop new treatments for people with the disease.”

While aware of the slow path to a cure, Christina’s mother Tania remains optimistic. “This is a significant discovery and a great milestone for the world in terms of research. Leading scientists will be able to access this finding and develop medications to save the lives of people like Christina.”

“It’s hard for her to walk far without tiring, but she’s a fighter with a strong character. I’m hopeful that she will live long enough that she can see and experience being healed of Fanconi.”

The research was funded by the Fanconi Anaemia Research Fund and the Federal Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), with support from Maddie Riewoldt’s Vision.

Re-enacting the crime

In February, a team headed by SVI’s Associate Professor Stuart Mannering and his collaborator Professor Ed Stanley, from Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), were awarded a $1.5 million Innovation Award for research into type 1 diabetes.

The work is one of three bold and promising projects that will benefit from $4.5 million in funding from the Type 1 Diabetes Clinical Research Network (T1DCRN). The T1DCRN is a clinical research program led by JDRF Australia and funded by a Special Research Initiative through the Australian Research Council (ARC).

The team comprises Associate Professor Stuart Mannering, Professor Ed Stanley, Dr Alisha Oshlack (MCRI), Dr Colleen Elso (SVI), Professor Andrew Elefanty (MCRI), Associate Professor Helen Thomas (SVI), Professor Tom Kay (SVI) and Professor Fergus Cameron from The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne.

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that develops when the body’s immune cells mistakenly destroy the insulin-producing cells contained within the pancreas.

The grant awarded to the team is aimed at reconstructing the immune responses that cause type 1 diabetes. This will allow the researchers to dissect exactly how the disease develops.

In 2015, a team from SVI led by Stuart and Tom Kay, pioneered techniques to isolate immune cells from the pancreas of organ donors who had suffered from type 1 diabetes. This important breakthrough allowed them, for the first time, to analyse immune cells from the ‘scene of the crime’.

The team is now taking on the challenge of re-enacting the crime – that is, recreating the killing of the insulin-producing cells in the test-tube so that the disease-causing response can be dissected. 

Stuart explains, “We’re really excited about the research that this funding enables because once we can dissect the immune response that kills the insulin-producing cells, we will be able to develop a therapy that will prevent, or maybe even reverse, the disease. This is our long-term goal.”

He says that to date the group have caught the ‘culprits’ – the immune cells – but they have not yet been able to interrogate the ‘victims’ – the insulin-producing cells. This is because it is not possible to store in the long-term the insulin-producing cells derived from an organ donor. And because the events are specific to each person, it is necessary to ‘match’ immune cells with insulin-producing cells from the same individual in order to properly reproduce disease conditions.

To solve this problem the team at SVI are joining forces with MCRI’s Professors Ed Stanley and Andrew Elefanty, who are world-renowned experts in the field of stem-cells. Techniques developed by the MCRI group will allow the team to ‘grow’ insulin-producing cells from the stored blood of the original organ donor. These cells will be the ‘victims’ in the re-enactment, allowing the group to study the process of cell killing in type 1 diabetes in a powerful new way.

“Ultimately this work will reveal, for the first time, how and why the immune system kills the insulin-producing cells in people who develop type 1 diabetes. This will allow us to develop ways to measure this ‘bad’ immune response in healthy people who may be developing type 1 diabetes. Then, once we can see the crime unfolding we will be able to step in and stop it before it is too late."

Diabetes funding boost

Dr Andrew Sutherland has been awarded a Career Development Fellowship by the JDRF. The Award will support Andrew over the next 5 years in his studies focusing on ways of inhibiting immune responses as a treatment for type 1 diabetes.

Dr Satoru Akazawa was awarded a JDRF Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue his work with Associate Professor Helen Thomas in SVI’s Immunology and Diabetes Unit.

Researcher snapshot

Claudia Selck is a PhD student in the Immunology and Diabetes Unit. Her research focuses on developing antigen-specific therapies for the treatment of type 1 diabetes.

My childhood ambition was to... become a professional singer.

My first job was... doing paper rounds.

My worst job was... working at a very pretentious hotel with unfriendly staff and even worse guests.

My happiest moment was... surviving an amazing sky dive.

I got into research because... I’ve always been fascinated about how the human body works, why diseases develop and how they can be cured.

The hardest thing I have ever done was... telling my family that I will do my PhD on the other side of the world.

If I wasn’t doing research, I would... be a clinician or marine biologist.

If I could live anywhere I would choose... to travel the world and live in a different country every year.

Penny shares her story

Penny Hilsman was 15 when she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. 

“No one in my family had type 1 diabetes.

It took a while for the family to get used to my having type 1 diabetes – myself, my parents and my sister Glenda all had to adjust. There wasn’t a lot of education about the disease at the time; we were provided a very strict diet sheet to follow and that was about it. 

As I got older and my diabetes progressed, my condition became quite unstable and I was losing my cognitive function. I lost my driver’s licence and had to quit my job at St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, where I was working as a dietitian.

I found out about the Islet Transplant Program from my endocrinologist, who said it was the only remaining option available to help manage my diabetes.

My father initially said no to my participation, however my mother said yes from the start – she would spend hours at night looking after me and my diabetes had had a huge impact on her. My sister said when new things come along, it’s worth giving them a try. 

As I don’t have many antibodies against islets, it was easier for them to find the right donor islets for me compared to some others on the waiting list, but it still took about a year. I’ve now had two islet transplant procedures and have been off insulin for 4½ years. I can actually feel my blood sugar drop now, whereas before I could never sense my change in blood sugar levels. 

Suddenly my full-time focus has become all about diet and exercise. The transplants haven’t been a cure, but there’s no question I made the right decision in having them.

My hopes for the future of type 1 diabetes medical research would be a cure that doesn’t involve side effects of medications – that would provide great emotional and financial peace of mind for the patient.”

Susan Alberti AC becomes patron of the SVI Foundation

"I was the inaugural Chair of the SVI Foundation when it was established back in 2004 – nearly 13 years ago. Since that time we have raised more than $20million to support the work of the team at SVI who are doing a remarkable job in the world of medical research discovery. 

I know many of you have heard the story of my beautiful daughter Danielle and her journey in this world which ended so tragically due to the curse of type 1 diabetes. 

I was surprised and quite ill prepared to discover when Danielle was first diagnosed that type 1 diabetes represented one of the major unknowns of medical science. I also learned that its incidence was increasing each year at a rapid rate and that it is a demanding health issue that places significant pressures on all family members. 

My own personal experience set me on a quest to raise public knowledge and funding for type 1 diabetes and brought me into contact with outstanding researchers. 

My only daughter’s death drives me every day, to help support the work of medical researchers at SVI – and other institutions – to develop better treatments, work toward the prevention and hopefully a cure of type 1 diabetes. 

One of the most exciting developments in the search for a cure is SVI’s role in the Australian Islet Transplant Program, in which people with uncontrollable diabetes are transplanted with human islets. 

The Victorian arm of the Program, led by SVI, has resulted in ten patients having received transplants to date. These recipients suffered from a particularly brutal form of type 1 diabetes and, in particular, low and unpredictable blood sugar levels. Known as ‘brittle’ diabetes many sufferers have been unable to drive a car, cook over a stove or even look after their grand-children, for fear of rapidly falling blood sugars rendering them unconscious. The quality of life for sufferers of type 1 diabetes who have benefited from this program has improved out of sight. 

And of course it is not just in the area of type 1 diabetes that SVI is making ground-breaking medical research discoveries. There would not be many families that have not been personally impacted by disease studied at SVI. 

I am pleased that my time with SVI has also coincided with a remarkable shift in Australian society toward gender equality. 

Over the last decade I have come across a range of really talented female researchers, who face their own unique challenges of competing in a world that until recent years was heavily male dominated. 

There is nothing more important than providing a work environment that encourages both men and women to be at their best. 

At SVI we have tackled this head on by developing a career path for our best and brightest female researchers which also allows them to take time off to have a baby along the way. 

What we decided to do was, rather than in the usual way, which is to ask the government to help out, we would do it ourselves – we would help break down the barriers for women in medical research. What we established was an annual ‘award’ to a scientist and mother-to-be working here at SVI. 

The Award takes the form of a grant to help pay for a Research Assistant to carry out important work while the award recipient is on maternity leave. 

This has been a long-standing impediment to many female scientists working in medical research institutes – the ability to have a baby and take time away from the workplace to spend those important early weeks and months with a newborn, without impacting on experiments, research and ultimately careers. 

I am delighted that Kate Graham, Sophie Broughton, Lorien Parker and Urmi Dhagat were recipients of the Susan Alberti Women in Research Award over the last 4 years. 

I often reflect on how far support for women in the workplace has come since the early days when the tragic death of my first husband Angelo meant I had to go to ‘school’ to obtain the qualifications needed to keep our building and construction business operating. 

That is why the changing community mindset which applauds and encourages more women in the workplace and family friendly environments is so important – the opportunities available to women today just weren’t available when I was growing up. 

In finishing I would like to reflect on philanthropy in Australia because without philanthropy there would be no SVI. 

The original £200,000 bequest founded this organisation. Not only was John ‘Jack’ Holt a famous Melbourne racehorse trainer, he was also one of the great philanthropists of his time. Jack Holt’s foresight has left a wonderful legacy. 

I am proud to have followed in his footsteps, in a small way, and been a part of a dedicated group of people who have raised more than $20million toward making sure SVI can still claim that ‘Hope begins here’. 

It has been an amazing journey and I am proud to have shared it with so many."

Ten years of $10,000 Discovery Fund success

This year, the SVI $10,000 Discovery Fund celebrates its 10th anniversary. 

Founded by SVI Foundation Board member Christine Tarascio and her husband Sam, their aim of establishing an investment fund of $5 million to support research at SVI is quickly nearing its goal. 

SVI supporters Tony and Elda Schiavello were quick to jump on board with their support, becoming early members and repeating their original pledge. Sadly, Elda recently passed away, but Christine is determined to honour her friend’s memory and commitment to support SVI and our researchers.

“Our passion for research was driven by personal experiences with family members who were affected by diseases that SVI researches – for me this included arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. 

“The first few members were close friends and business colleagues, who each committed $10,000 per year for 5 years. The number of Discovery Fund members has now grown to more than 30 members, many of whom are onto their second term of investment,” said Christine. 

The Fund members come together twice a year to catch up on each other’s news and hear from an SVI researcher about their latest research findings.

“Our members are so motivated, generous and enthusiastic. It’s a pleasure to inspire others to make a difference in a way that is meaningful and can make ongoing contributions to our community. 

“Elda and I chose to support SVI because the Institute’s researchers are so dedicated to eradicate pain and suffering for those with diseases such as Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. I feel like we’ll be leaving a legacy that will have a real impact.”

If you are interested in joining the $10,000 Discovery Fund, please contact Christine Tarascio on 0418318627 or [email protected].

Vale Hilton Nicholas

Hilton Nicholas AM OBE, longtime friend of SVI, passed away on the 25th of January. Hilton sat on the SVI Board for more than 30 years, serving as Chair from 1988-1993. A great friend of the Institute, Hilton’s wise counsel and input was much valued. Our thoughts are with his family.

The Women in Research Award

Now in its fifth year, the Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation’s Mother’s Day Luncheon has raised vital funds to support the careers of women in research at SVI.

The most crucial years in a female researcher’s career often coincide with childbearing and raising young children. 

The Women in Research Award presented at the annual SAMRF Luncheon provides funds to pay a research assistant or postdoctoral fellow to continue the recipient’s work in the lab while she is on maternity leave or working part-time.

Last year’s recipient of the Award, Dr Urmi Dhagat, is the proud mother of a 9-month-old girl named Japna. We asked Urmi what receiving the Women in Research Award meant to her.

Why is the Award unique?

The Award provides female researchers with the financial support required to ensure their research can continue while they are on maternity leave, or working part-time. Moreover, this Award recognises and celebrates the women who successfully manage to balance work and family life.

What did receiving the Award mean to you?

I felt reassured that while I was at home caring for my newborn, my projects did not have to be put on hold. Very few scientists have the kind of support that I have received here at SVI; I would like to thank my lab head, colleagues and particularly the Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation for creating and funding the Women in Research Award.

What are the challenges of working in medical research and how do you overcome them?

Medical research is extremely competitive and to stay in the game it is vital to publish research outcomes in good quality publications in order to obtain research funding. Career disruptions due to maternity leave or part-time work hinder research progress, which affects productivity and grant success. The environment at SVI is extremely supportive for young scientists. I stay motivated by participating in career development meetings and seminars. 

There can also be challenges when you return to work as the parent of young children; how do you overcome these?

I am lucky to have supportive parents and the flexibility at SVI to be able to return to work 4 days a week. However, reduced working hours means that I have to work more efficiently to stay on track with my project goals.

Career highlight?

In 2015, I received an international award for my achievements as a young scientist and an invitation to present my work at the Federation of Asian and Oceanian Biochemists and Molecular Biologists Congress.

What keeps you motivated in your role as a researcher?

I love what I do. I work in the field of cancer biology and my role is to study proteins that cause the disease. Knowing that you are playing a key role in solving the mysteries of human health is very rewarding.