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Tom says

Science is one of the ultimate expressions of humanity’s creativity and curiousity. Medical research is the science of how the human body functions in health and disease. It is a noble activity that began in antiquity and has leaped forward since the Enlightenment. It is also one of Australia’s most successful endeavours, and SVI is proud to contribute to it. You are also contributing through your support for the Institute. 

Young scientists are passionate about what they do because discovery is profoundly exciting and satisfying. In medical research there is an additional dimension of addressing the misfortune and suffering of others – and often top of mind for many of our researchers are relatives and friends with serious illnesses. Translating our research into improved treatment and cures for common diseases – diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer, bone diseases – is SVI’s mission. This is inspiring even if we all recognise the chance of any individual experiment revealing a successful new treatment is small. 

The actual doing of science is not glamorous day to day. Collecting and analysing data in a rigorous fashion with attention to detail is tedious, as is the need to repeat experiments many times to be certain of results. Then there is the high likelihood of experiments, methods and approaches failing and a new path needing to be devised – this is difficult, but all part of the job. We do not advocate any shortcuts; our culture is one of deep roots and integrity. 

Another enormous downside is dealing with the continuous battle of funding from one grant deadline to the next and the high likelihood of rejection. Support from funding agencies is always less than needed and in recent times seems to increasingly work like a lottery with too few winning tickets. SVI supports the careers of young scientists who we evaluate as doing important world-leading work with impact on disease, but who cannot necessarily get sufficient funding for their salaries and the technologies they need to compete internationally. 

This is a problem that we can fix with your help. We want talented young Australians to aspire to a career in medical research, not shy away from it. Philanthropic support is particularly important at the start of careers – seeing that others value what you do and are prepared to help can have a tremendous impact and enable the persistence that is essential for scientific success. We are particularly focused on the next generation at SVI and I invite you all to visit and become involved with our inspiring young scientists. 

NHMRC funding success

SVI received more than $4million to support its research in the 2018 National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding round. 

Five Project Grants were awarded to SVI researchers: Dr Wayne Crismani from Genome Stability, Dr Kim Loh from Protein Chemistry & Metabolism (recipient of two grants), Associate Professor Louise Purton from Stem Cell Regulation and Dr Davis McCarthy, who heads up the newly formed Bioinformatics and Cellular Genomics Unit. 

We look forward to updating you on the impact of this support in future editions of The Edman. 

Celebrating 30 years of success

In 2019, Professor Bruce Kemp, Head of SVI’s Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit and one of Australia’s most respected biochemists, celebrates the 30th anniversary of his arrival at SVI. 

In fitting recognition of his contribution to Australian medical research over more than four decades, Bruce was recently honoured as an Officer of the Order of Australia. 

In his time at SVI Bruce has supervised and mentored many exceptional individuals, many of whom have gone on to forge successful independent careers. Two of Bruce’s protégés, Professors Tony Tiganis and Greg Steinberg, reminisce here about their time in Bruce’s lab.

Professor Greg Steinberg, Canada Research Chair and J Bruce Duncan Chair in Metabolic Diseases, McMaster University, Canada

“It was September 2001 when I first met Bruce after reading with great interest the lab’s initial papers on the cloning and molecular characterization of AMP-activated protein kinase. 

I remember the initial meeting with him being so exhilarating and I was absolutely amazed at his incredible insight into the potential of the kinase for regulating multiple facets of metabolism.

The next year, I joined the lab, on a 2-year Canadian postdoctoral fellowship and was immediately immersed in the very exhilarating research environment which Bruce fostered through his unparalleled knowledge of protein biochemistry, unwavering thirst for new knowledge and his steadfast demands for scientific excellence. At the same time Bruce was always incredibly supportive of fostering my independent research career by encouraging research collaborations, providing leadership opportunities and offering his wisdom on not only science, but life in general. 

In 2009, I returned to Canada as a professor at McMaster University where to this day I continue to work closely with Bruce and his team at SVI. 

I am forever grateful for the mentorship and friendship that Bruce has provided to me over the last 17 years and cannot imagine a more fitting recipient of the Order of Australia.”

Professor Tony Tiganis, Head, Cellular Signalling and Metabolic Disease Laboratory, Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute, Monash University

“I undertook my PhD with Bruce from 1990 till 1994 and, after post-doctoral studies at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US, I returned to Bruce’s lab as an NHMRC C.J. Martin Fellow. 

Every scientific career needs a strong foundation. My training in Bruce’s lab, his guidance and mentorship formed the bedrock for the foundation of my career. He taught me scientific rigour, encouraged me to think laterally and allowed me to follow my ideas, no matter how silly they were. 

When I returned from the US, he supported and guided my pursuit of independence. He is the very reason I pursued a scientific career. 

When I was nearing the end of my PhD I was offered a position in medicine at The University of Melbourne. I sought Bruce’s advice on the matter. He asked me one question: “Tony, do you want to have a comfortable life and make money, or do you want to be Alexander The Great?” He knew how to push my buttons! 

I will always be indebted to Bruce.”

Breaking through the glass ceiling

SVI researchers Natalie Sims and Helen Thomas have been appointed recently as honorary Professors by the University of Melbourne.

“We congratulate Professors Sims and Thomas,” said SVI Director, Tom Kay. “This is a fitting recognition of their significant roles, both in driving forward their respective research agendas, and of the important part they play in enriching the Institute’s culture.”

Below, the newly minted Professors reflect on their experiences working in medical research and comment on the significance of their appointments.

Professor Natalie Sims
My family are really proud of me becoming professor – although it’s not unexpected, I guess they see it as a natural progression. But every now and then I think about how my grandparents would have reacted – my Nana didn’t even finish primary school. 

It’s also really important for the people in the lab. They’re excited because they, quite rightly, see it as recognition of their work too: research really is a team activity.

Professor Jack Martin, the previous Director of SVI, has been my biggest inspiration. I am constantly impressed by the way he has been able to maintain his curiosity and his thirst for knowledge about the skeletal system. Also, the way that he has been able to inspire a group of people to travel with him, and with his ideas, over so many years is pretty amazing. 

Doing research requires an active choice every day. Every grant that you write; every paper that you produce; every experiment that you run, it’s a commitment that you’re going to finish that. When you get new data, that reminds you why you’re still in the game.

For me the point of it all is to understand how we get this skeleton, how it works, how we can make it healthy. There is so much we don’t know about it – it is such a black hole. That is what motivates me, everything we find out – and every possibility of finding out more – is really exciting.”

Professor Helen Thomas
“My Dad expected all four of his daughters to do well: he had very high expectations. When I sent him the screenshot of the email from the University telling me I was appointed as Professor – he was in India at the time – he replied, “What wonderful news, I should say, high time too!”

The professor I worked for in Alabama after I finished my degree was a fantastic role model. She is an Australian named Gillian Air, and she worked on the flu virus. I basically answered an ad in the paper and went over to the US to get some experience, without much idea of what it was going to be like.

She was a bit younger than I am now, and she had a similar group to the one I now have. She was a really good boss – interested in everyone’s work, tough but fair, and the lab was full of people from lots of different places. She set a really good example that I have kept in my mind, even if I haven’t thought about it that much consciously. I think that cemented for me how to do it right.

When I started out, my aims were short term, really to solve the next problem, but as time has gone on, I have met many people with type 1 diabetes, and parents whose children have the disease. Through that you get to know more about how the disease affects them. And you feel more and more that something has to be done to help them. The idea that I can personally make a difference is a big motivation.”

Three way partnership paves way for collaboration

Dr Davis McCarthy has joined SVI as Head of the new Bioinformatics and Cellular Genomics Unit, in a joint appointment with the University of Melbourne.

The position has been facilitated by a generous donation to the University by former SVI Board member Mr Paul Holyoake and his wife, Ms Marg Downey.

Davis is an NHMRC Early Career Fellow who has spent the last 7 years working in the UK, initially at the University of Oxford and then at the European Bioinformatics Institute. In his time overseas, Davis worked at the interface of cutting-edge statistics, computing and cell biology and brings back to Australia unique expertise in complex data analysis.

As the newly appointed Holyoake Research Fellow, Davis will focus on developing methods to interpret the large data sets being produced by researchers using modern sequencing technologies. He has a particular interest in single-cell genomics and in devising analysis frameworks for studies into the effects of changes in DNA on gene expression in individual cells.

An important part of his role will involve his formal link with the University’s School of Mathematics and Statistics, through its new research unit Melbourne Integrative Genomics (MIG).

MIG Director, Professor David Balding hopes that the appointment will lead to further collaboration between the organisations. “This new position will help establish MIG as a world leader in mathematical and computational methods for genomics, and form an important bridge between medical researchers interested in the origin and progression of disease, and cutting-edge research in computational genomics.”

Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research) at the University of Melbourne, Professor Jim McCluskey said, “It is fantastic to have Dr McCarthy return to Australia thanks to this very generous gift from the Holyoake family. His expertise in bioinformatics will flow through to many other research groups in the biomedical precinct.”

SVI Director Tom Kay said that philanthropic support for rising stars like Davis prepares the ground for an outstanding career in the sector.

Philanthropic support will give Davis the time and resources to focus on establishing and advancing his research, and the opportunity to build important connections and knowledge. 

Sheryl shares her story

After treatment for breast cancer, Sheryl developed lymphoedema of her left arm. 

“I had no symptoms, but I was 6 months late having my mammogram. A few days afterwards I had an ultrasound, which then led to an appoint-ment to have a biopsy. Two days later I was speaking to a surgeon. She told me I had an 11mm mass that was invasive and aggressive, and I would have to have a lumpectomy and chemotherapy. I opted for a double mastectomy and decided to have a breast reconstruction take place at the same time. 

Ten days after my surgery, I had 16 nodes taken out of the left armpit; a couple of days later my left arm was sore. I had developed what they call ‘cording’ in my arm and it started to swell. I saw a physiotherapist who specialised in treating people with this condition, called lymphoedema. She worked on my arm and I got suppression sleeves; 3-4 weeks later the lymphoedema was under control, but I had to continue to wear a compression garment. 

Then I started my chemo treatment; I had four sets of chemo 3 weeks apart. After the last session the lymphoedema came back. I went back to my physiotherapist for massage treatment every day, bought a pulse pump machine and purchased more compression garments. She told me that she knew of a world expert, SVI’s Dr Ramin Shayan, who she had met at conferences. 

When I saw him, Ramin said he thought he could help me, as I had only had lymphoedema for 3 months at that time. 

Ramin carried out microsurgery on my left hand. It has been fine ever since – no physio, massages, pain or compression garments needed! The top of my arm has gone down by 5-6cm and I feel normal again. I’m so lucky that my physio knew about him. 

I have absolutely no fear about my future health; in my mind I’m done and dusted. I’ve had the breast cancer and the lymphoedema and now they’re gone – I’m back to my normal life now. As for medical research, I’m blown away with how far it has come, and if medical researchers keep going the way they’re going, we’ve got a fabulous future ahead for everybody. I truly believe there’s hope for all of us; and that chronic diseases and other conditions can be eradicated.” 

Thank you for your feedback

Last year we asked our donors to participate in a survey to provide feedback on how we can communicate about our research more effectively.

As this was our first survey in many years, we sent it out not knowing what to expect. 

We were humbled by the response, as donors welcomed the opportunity to share their experience and encourage others to support SVI:

“Great leadership, great medical research institute at the forefront in world terms – keep on pursuing the answers and attracting the best and brightest.”

“Keep up the brilliant work, nurturing an amazing team, leading enormous improvements in health and well-being. Thank you for your commitment.”

“Thank you for your amazing commitment to helping people living a less fortunate life.”

“Your passion and enthusiasm for improving the lives of people living with chronic diseases is commendable.”

There is no way to fully express the gratitude of our research teams for the loyalty and commitment of those who choose to support their work. 

We are inspired by the generosity of donors who answer the call to give.

We also appreciate your feedback and hope this edition ticks all of your boxes. It includes updates on our researchers, stories of people affected by disease and news about research at the Institute. Your comments have also been incorporated into the design of our donor programs to ensure that when we ask for support, provide opportunities to give, and engage with our supporters, we do so in ways that you prefer. 

We promise we won’t wait so long to ask for your feedback again, but in the meantime, we welcome any comments or questions you may have about supporting SVI.

You can get in touch by email: [email protected] or phone: (03) 9231 3265.

Rising star Dr Astrid Glaser

Astrid Glaser joined SVI in 2018, supported by the SVI Foundation’s Rising Star Program. Astrid’s Fellowship was provided by a generous philanthropic donation.

“I moved to Melbourne from Austria 5 years ago for the opportunity to undertake my PhD on new ways to treat inherited genetic disorders. 

During my PhD I had the chance to work on a ground-breaking technology, called genome editing, that allows scientists to make precise changes in a cell’s DNA. 

Genome editing is an exciting new development in medical research because it allows us to repair a disease-causing mutation in a gene by turning it back to the healthy version. 

But before we can start repairing genes in patients, we must work out a few kinks in the lab. 

One of these kinks is that we must make the change in not just one, but millions of cells in order for a treatment to be effective. In other words, we must increase the efficiency of genome editing. 

During my PhD, I developed a world-first method to measure genome editing efficiency, with the idea that this would allow me to test different strategies that might improve efficiency.

I was approached by Andrew Deans, Head of SVI’s Genome Stability Unit, last year because he was interested in my method. We discussed some of my ideas and he invited me to join his team after I finished my PhD.

It gives me a thrill to know that the method I developed is now being used by scientists all over the world. 

Even more thrilling, I know that my salary for the next 3 years will be supported by a very generous Rising Star Fellowship. 

This means I can focus on my lab work and on fast-tracking my research without having to worry about resources.

Every year, young scientists like me are graduating from PhD programs in medical research. We are energetic and ambitious and ready to work the long hours required to make life-changing discoveries. 

The Rising Star Program gives early career researchers like me the chance to make a real difference.”

For the Love of Science

On Valentine’s Day, guests at our inaugural For The Love of Science dinner raised $141,000 to support SVI’s Rising Stars – a program designed to fund young researchers with the potential to shape medical research into the future. Thanks to our sponsors and supporters, volunteers and partners, for making the evening a great success.

Support our Women in Research

"With support from the Susan Alberti Women in Research Award, my research continued at full pace while I was on maternity leave. The Award helped fund a research assistant and a student and made my transition back to work much easier."   Dr Michaela Waibel, recipient of the 2018 Susan Alberti Women in Research Award

Please join us in supporting the Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation Mother's Day Luncheon. This year's MC is Craig Willis, and the Special Guest Speaker is Professor Helen Thomas, Head of SVI's Immunology and Diabetes Unit.
Location: The Ballroom, Leonda by the Yarra
2 Wallen Road, Hawthorn
Date: Thursday 9th May 2019
Time: 12 noon - 3:00 pm
Tickets: $150pp
For tickets telephone (03) 9560 1595 or visit the SAMRF website.

Your support of this event will help us to raise vital funds for women working in research and managing young families.