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Tom says

It is a great pleasure to announce that distinguished SVI researcher Natalie Sims has been appointed as Deputy Director of SVI. 

Natalie completed her PhD at the University of Adelaide and worked as a postdoc at the Garvan Institute and at Yale University. After a very productive time at these institutions, she returned to Australia in 2001; since then she has focused on building her research team at SVI. Natalie is an expert on biochemical pathways in bone cells that are relevant to bone structure and strength and she is much in demand as an authority on bone histomorphometry (the study of bone cells down the microscope). This is highly relevant to diseases such as collaborative links nationally to complement the opportunities we have closer to home. Most hospitals and universities do not have this natural affiliation. 

We also have many significant partners locally, of which the most important is St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. SVI researchers are always on the lookout for collaborators working directly with patients and the adjacent hospital is an excellent way of finding them. 

We also have a close affiliation with The University of Melbourne, where most of our students are enrolled, and with other University partners through the Aikenhead Centre. The other Victorian medical research institutes (MRIs) are also close neighbours with whom we have much in common, especially in terms of culture and focus on research excellence and its translation. We work closely with the other MRIs to present a highly aligned viewpoint to Government. 

These institutional collaborations are a vital part of how SVI works and they mirror the strong relationships between the individuals within these organisations. Partnerships contribute to critical mass and efficiency in utilising scarce resources and enable us to tackle major health problems in the community more effectively. 

Rising stars

Dr Kim Loh from SVI’s Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit was awarded the 2018 Skip Martin Early Career Fellowship. This award is sponsored by the Australian Diabetes Society (ADS) and is awarded to an ADS member who is not more than 5 years into their postdoctoral studies. 

Surgical Fellow and PhD student Kiryu Yap, was awarded a Commendation Medal in November last year at the BioMedVic Clinician Researcher Awards. Kiryu is from the O’Brien Institute Department, where he works with his supervisor Dr Geraldine Mitchell on finding new ways to treat liver disease. 

60 years of discovery

The atmosphere in a medical research laboratory is one of quiet concentration accompanied by the steady background hum of freezers. It is almost as far as you can get from the frenetic atmosphere of the racetrack where Jack Holt made his fortune. 

But it is thanks to Jack Holt’s success at the track that SVI’s laboratories exist at all. Jack Holt was arguably Australia’s most successful racehorse trainer of the early 20th century. In the 17 racing seasons from 1919 to 1935, he headed the Victorian Trainers’ Premiership 13 times. His career peaked at the 1933 Melbourne Cup with the winning colt Hall Mark. 

During his life, Jack Holt was known as a generous man. After the death of his sister, Holt put considerable thought into how his legacy could live on after his own death. Accordingly, when he died in 1951, he left 200,000 pounds to establish a medical research institution at St Vincent’s. 

The money was enough to secure premises, hire staff and convince one of the world’s leading biochemists, Dr Pehr Edman, to take up the Director’s chair. St Vincent’s School of Medical Research (renamed St Vincent’s Institute in 1984) was officially opened on the 23rd of April 1958. 

In the 60 years since, researchers at SVI have made important insights into common diseases that affect many Australians. This includes the discovery of how the balance between dissolving and renewing bone is controlled, which has the potential to lead to therapies for diseases such as osteoporosis, through to understanding the protein AMP kinase, a major target of efforts to combat type 2 diabetes and obesity. 

And philanthropy has continued to play an important role. Bridging the gap between what could happen in the future and what will, SVI’s supporters, both past and present, are a vital part of the fabric of the Institute today. 

We invite you to celebrate Jack Holt’s generosity with us in 2018. Visit the Events section of our website at http://www.svi.edu.au to keep up to-date with our events. You can also follow us on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/SVIResearch/ and Twitter https://twitter.com/SVIResearch

If you would like to support medical research at SVI, or if you would like to organise a tour to learn more about the Institute, please contact the Foundation office on (03) 9231 2480. 

Photo: Jack Holt with Dame Rita Buxton, who subsequently became the first individual donor to the newly formed ‘St Vincent’s School of Medical Research’ 

NHMRC funding success

Research programs at SVI investigating type 2 diabetes, cancer and type 1 diabetes received more than $14million in National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) funding in the most recent round of grants. 

Six SVI research projects were awarded funding in the 2017 Project Grant round, announced by the NHMRC in December last year. The Project Grant Scheme funds research projects for a period of up to 5 years. The funding accounts for a considerable part of SVI’s income as a whole and represents the sole source of external support for some of SVI’s smaller labs.

In the latest round, three grants were awarded to researchers in the Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit (Drs Jon Oakhill, John Scott and Sandra Galic). This will fund their comprehensive studies that focus on how the body controls its use of energy. Dr Chris Langendorf from the Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit was also awarded an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship.

Cancer researchers Associate Professor Carl Walkley and Dr Andrew Deans were also awarded Project Grants. Carl’s work focuses on the role of the protein ADAR1 in editing RNA and the development of cancer. Andrew’s work aims to develop new cancer treatments based on a better understanding of the protein FANCM.

Type 1 diabetes researcher Associate Professor Helen Thomas was awarded funding to test new ways of inhibiting the immune response that leads to type 1 diabetes.

This funding is in addition to the successful Program Grant into type 1 diabetes, led by Professor Tom Kay, which was announced by the Health Minister in October. 

Tom says that the NHMRC fund-ing is an important component of SVI’s success and our researchers are grateful for the support. 

“The whole sector acknowledges how competitive the NHMRC funding system has become. It’s reassuring to see that the researchers who have been successful in this year’s funding round have been acknowledged for the important work they are doing and given the stamp of approval to continue their research.”

Tackling obesity through research

Toby Dite, one of SVI’s recent PhD graduates, has published an impressive six peer-reviewed papers during his time at SVI and has another publication in the works. 

A member of Dr Jon Oakhill’s Metabolic Signalling Laboratory, Toby was the lead researcher on a paper published in Nature Communications in December 2017, focusing on the lab’s favourite subject, a protein called AMP kinase.

Toby likens AMP kinase to the body’s fuel gauge; by switching between “on” and “off” states in muscles, liver and fat cells it lowers blood glucose; prevents cholesterol from being made; stops the production of fatty acids and increases the amount of fat that the cell burns – all good reasons for intense interest from pharmaceutical companies who aim to develop new drugs for people with metabolic diseases such as obesity and type 2 diabetes. 

Toby says, “We started looking at enzymes that were already proven to turn AMP kinase on, and increase energy levels in cells that are under stress due to issues such as hunger or exercise. One of these enzymes, called ULK1, increases autophagy in a cell – a process whereby a cell digests parts of itself it doesn’t need at thetime, to help create more energy.” 

“We found that when we introduced ULK1 to AMPK, it made the modification to AMPK that we were looking for – called phosphorylation – which in turn made AMPK more responsive to drugs.”

“The next step is to introduce different drugs to this modified AMPK in the lab and see if we get results that are promising enough to lead to clinical trials for people with metabolic diseases.”

Toby says that while he is looking forward to the next phase of his career, he knows that he will look back fondly on his time at SVI. He credits the research projects he has been involved with, his supervisors and staff at SVI as playing a big part in his success. “I’m grateful for their direction and support and you never know, one day, I might be back!”

Ten years of islet transplantation at SVI

The 14th of December 2017 marked the 10-year anniversary of the first islet transplant performed in Victoria.

“Since the first islet transplant in 2007, we have performed islet isolations that have helped 47 people across Australia. In Victoria, with our partner St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, we have performed islet transplants on 14 recipients, with the majority of these patients receiving more than one transplant. Eight recipients received islet transplants at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide and 25 recipients received islet transplants at Westmead Hospital, Sydney,” says Professor Tom Kay.

The team in Melbourne is part of the Australian Islet Transplant Consortium, offering national access to islet transplantation for people with type 1 diabetes and recurrent hypoglycaemia with hypoglycaemic unawareness.

Before undertaking an islet transplant, the islets need to be ‘isolated’ from donated pancreases and purified. They are then infused into the portal vein of the patient’s liver.

“We are grateful to those people who choose to donate their organs and their families; without their generosity this program wouldn’t be possible,” says Tom.

The consortium has two islet isolation facilities, the Susan Alberti Islet Isolation Facility at SVI in Melbourne and one at Sydney’s Westmead Hospital, and performs transplants in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.

“Islet transplantation reduces hypoglycaemia in approximately 85% of recipients and allows cessation of insulin in about half of the recipients. Recipients must take immunosuppressive drugs for the lifetime of the islet transplant to avoid transplant rejection and recurrence of autoimmunity, but in the majority of cases their quality of life is greatly improved,” says Tom.

Since 2013, the Australian islet transplant program has been funded by the government’s Nationally Funded Centre program, set up to provide equitable access for all Australians to certain low volume, high cost and highly specialised clinical practices and technologies. The Program was supported at its inception by Susan Alberti, the JDRF and the Australian Department of Health and Ageing. 

Researcher snapshot

Elyse Dunn is a Postdoctoral Research Officer in the Genome Stability Unit. Her research focuses on understanding the role of DNA repair genes in breast cancer predisposition.

My childhood ambition was to...become a director or writer. 

My first job was...working at a supermarket.

My worst job was...cleaning out the chicken oven in the deli at the supermarket!

My happiest moment was...travelling the world, finishing my PhD, running my first half marathon.

I got into research because...it’s interesting and challenging (sometimes more than others!)

The hardest thing I have ever done was...complete a 10km marathon swim.

If I wasn’t doing research, I would...be a travel writer, entrepreneur or teacher. 

If I could live anywhere I would choose...New Zealand or Canada.

Medical research benefits the whole community

For more than half of SVI’s lifespan, Philip Spry-Bailey AO has been a loyal supporter. 

“The scientists at SVI are very dedicated and I feel that in many ways, society doesn’t reward them. Society is a bit out of kilter, putting tennis players and footy players on pedestals, but the real icons are researchers – that’s who should be on the pedestal. I think it’s important wherever possible to acknow-edge, respect and credit the work that our medical researchers do, as all humanity benefits.

One of my grandparents had died before I was born and by the time I was 6, they had all died. Today, I know my grandchildren, and possibly will know my great grandchildren. That’s wonderful for the grandparent, but I am sure it benefits the grandchild as well.

And that’s another reason why medical research, which contributes to most of humanity today, and is one of the reasons why we’re living longer, is so important. It provides the opportunity for us to have these special relationships.

I continue to support SVI to make sure the work continues; it’s so important. Without medical research I wouldn’t be alive today; it benefits the whole community.”

Phil’s involvement with the Institute started in 1987 when he was asked by the then St Vincent’s Institute Board Chair to help raise money for the construction of the new SVI building. 

“I was the CFO of Alcoa of Australia and so had some good contacts with corporates and was happy to help. I contacted the Alcoa Foundation, a philanthropic organisation funded by Alcoa in the USA. I suggested a donation which they generously made in US dollars and which, when converted to Australian dollars, was $50,000 – the largest single donation received. Soon after I was invited to join the SVI Board.”

Phil served on the SVI Board from 1988 to 1992, reluctantly retiring as he had become Chairman of St Vincent’s Hospital and was heavily involved with the Sisters of Charity, the State government and the banks.

“Once on the Board, I realised how important it is for a research institute to have a regular income, year after year.”

Phil says that being involved with the Institute is one of those things that he looks back on and thinks that it was time very well spent. 

“We all have to work to earn a living, and you like to think that you’ve achieved something in your job...but I think the times that stand out are the things that you did, which you didn’t have to do, supporting or working with those organisations or people who needed your help.”

Thanks to our generous supporters

The generous help of the community has enabled researchers at SVI to pursue their breakthrough research, purchase cutting-edge equipment and help the next generation of researchers. 

Below are just a small number of the projects that have been supported in the last year with the help of our SVI supporters. 

• SVI held Australia’s first Fanconi Anaemia family meeting in 2017, allowing people affected by the disease to hear about the most recent research being carried out at SVI and around the world. 

• Six higher degree students were awarded SVI Foundation Top-up Scholarships in 2017. Scholarships provide $5,000pa to our students to give them the financial freedom to focus entirely on their studies. 

• Vital equipment was purchased for use by researchers in SVI’s Bone Cell and Biology Unit. The equipment – called a microtome – allows researchers to cut very fine sections of tissue and analyse the relationships between the cells that make up bone. 

• Members of the Young Leadership Committee (YLC) visited SVI to donate blood to support SVI’s Living Biobank Program. The samples were used for experiments in SVI’s Human T Cell Laboratory. 

Photo: SVI's current Top-up Scholarship students.

Meet our new Foundation CEO

Please join us in welcoming Kate Barnett, who joined SVI as Foundation CEO in October 2017. 

Kate brings 15 years’ experience in areas such as philanthropy, sponsorship, engagement and advocacy. 

“My first job out of university was at Hunt & Hunt Lawyers as an articled clerk and solicitor. I followed on from my legal training by moving to the University of Melbourne’s Asialink Centre, which then led me to the Australia China Business Council’s national office in Sydney. I came back to Melbourne to run the development office within Melbourne Law School in 2012 and later became acting Deputy Director of Development for Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne. From that job, I moved on into SVI.” 

“I chose to join SVI for its proven track record of excellence and achievement, its collaborative approach, its international links and – most importantly – because I know philanthropy can make a profound difference in medical research.” 

“Conversations I’ve been having so far with SVI’s loyal volunteers, advocates and donors have been hugely encouraging. I like to have an open-door policy wherever I work, so please don’t hesitate to call me, email me or drop in to say hello. I’m happy to explore the many philanthropic partnership opportunities we have available for you to support medical research.” Contact Kate on (03) 9231 2480. 

Women in research Dr Jacki Heraud Farlow

Dr Jacki Heraud Farlow has a little more on her plate than the average early career researcher. She returned to SVI in February, following a period of maternity leave due to the birth of her twin girls, Indiana and Frida. Her older daughter, Florence, turned 3 just before the twins were born. 

Jacki considers herself fortunate to have been awarded philanthropic support that takes into account her circumstances as a promising early career researcher and a mother.

In 2017, Jacki was the recipient of the Susan Alberti Women in Research Award which supports a research assistant to continue the recipient’s work in the lab while she is on maternity leave. The Annual Susan Alberti Medical Research Foundation’s Mother’s Day Luncheon raises vital funds for this important cause.

On her return to SVI, Jacki was awarded The Marian and EH Flack Fellowship. The Flack Trust has worked with SVI to specifically tailor their support for Jacki. The Fellowship has been awarded at a full-time rate for 2 years even though Jacki has returned to work on a part-time basis. The balance of funds will be used to support the work of a research assistant, enabling Jacki to maximise her lab presence for the research project, whilst still being able to raise her young children. 

Jacki’s research in the Stem Cell Regulation Unit focuses on a pathway that allows cells to identify the difference between “self” and “non-self”. This allows a cell to tell when it has been invaded by a virus. The cell does this by labelling molecules that belong to it using a function called “editing”. Unfortunately, some children are born with mutations in this pathway, meaning their immune system reacts as if the body has been infected by a virus even though there is no infection present. This response results in profound neurodegeneration and loss of motor and communication skills early in life. There is currently no treatment for this disease, termed Aicardi-Goutieres syndrome. Jacki hopes that her research can shed light on the process in both normal cells and in those that carry a mutation in this important pathway.

Jacki says that the support from the Women in Research Award and the Flack Trust is valuable because it provides continuity for the research program. 

She says, “Receiving the Susan Alberti Women in Research Award meant that the big project I had been working on for a year prior to the birth of my twins could continue while I was on leave, rather than abruptly put on hold, especially given the babies were born early. Because of that I have a nice set of new data to work on now with the support of the Marian and EH Flack Trust.”

Jacki acknowledges that obtaining funding in medical research is incredibly competitive. 

“You need to find a good niche that differentiates your work from others and then work really hard to make the discoveries and communicate why they are important. Because of this competition there is always a drive to work harder, which is where the challenge of finding a good balance comes in. I am really lucky to have philanthropic support that takes into account my circumstances, increasing my chances of future funding success, but more importantly I believe, giving our research the best chance of coming to fruition.”

Jacki acknowledges the many challenges faced by parents returning to work with young children. 

“My husband and I are both very fortunate to work in family-friendly environments with flexible work hours. We coordinate our hours, so the kids get time with both of us each day. A chest freezer with lots of ready-to-go meals helps too!” 

Despite the difficulty of coordinating a research career with a particularly busy home life, Jacki is motivated by the thrill of new discoveries.

“Knowing that we are at the forefront of research and that what we are doing could lead to new therapies is a huge motivation.”