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SVI’s greatest asset is its staff, especially the expert researchers across a range of career stages who conceive projects, write grants to fund the work and then take the next steps of seeking the application of that knowledge to improve health. 

This edition of The Edman features an inspiring story about the relationship between one of these researchers, Louise Purton, and Colin North, the philanthropist who has supported her work. 
Traditionally, the main source of salary support for successful mid-career scientists has been the NHMRC’s Fellowship scheme. Becoming a NHMRC Fellow has always been a great honour – Fellows are the crème de la crème of Australian medical research.
 
This system used to be a career path that highly qualified scientists could rely on for support over a full career – an example at SVI is Bruce Kemp, who has been an NHMRC Fellow for over 30 years. 

But funding pressure means that this sort of longevity has become the exception rather than the rule. A more typical course now is for scientists to be intermittently successful in this highly, almost unmanageably competitive system. This means that our best and brightest researchers re-bid for their salary support every 5 years knowing that the odds are stacked against them. 
A particular concern is that, in 2016, only 22 of the 77 NHMRC Fellowships awarded went to female applicants. This is not only a terrible disappointment to those deserving applicants who were not funded, but also extremely discouraging to the highly talented women who are coming up through the system. 

The good news is that philanthropists are stepping in. Supporters like Colin North can make a huge difference at a watershed moment in the career of a researcher. We couldn’t be more grateful for the support. 

Award recipients

SVI’s Dr Prerak Trivedi is the winner of the 2017 TJ Martin Award, which is presented during ACMD Research Week. The Medal, named in honour of former SVI Director, Professor Jack Martin, is awarded annually for the best MD or PhD student thesis from the St Vincent’s campus submitted in the preceding year. Prerak did his PhD in SVI’s Islet Biology Unit under the supervision of Associate Professor Helen Thomas, Professor Tom Kay, and Associate Professor Stuart Mannering. Prerak was the recipient of an SVI Foundation Scholarship during his PhD, sponsored by SVI supporters Doris Young and Jim Best. 

Dr Christina Vrahnas, from SVI’s Bone Cell Biology and Disease Unit, has been awarded the 2017 Early Career Research Grant from the Jack Brockhoff Foundation. The grant supports early-career researchers to assist talented young researchers to build on their track record, enabling them later to compete successfully for research positions and grants, and to establish the foundation of a career in research. 

Dr Andrew Deans, from SVI’s Genome Stability Unit, was recently awarded the 2017 Fanconi Anemia Research Fund’s David B. Frohnmayer Early Investigator Award. The award is given to independent investigators of high accomplishment within 10 years of starting their own group. In collaboration with scientists from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK, Andrew’s team have, in a world first, been able to recapitulate in the test tube the defect that occurs in the disease Fanconi Anaemia, a rare genetic cancer syndrome. 

Islet isolation benefits pancreatitis patients

SVI’s islet isolation team has recently played a key role in providing a new treatment to people with severe pancreatitis. Their ability to do so comes from years of experience isolating and transplanting donor islets into people as a treatment for with type 1 diabetes. This year alone, they have isolated islets from the pancreas’ of three patients, destined for re-transplantation into the same donors. 

Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, an organ of the digestive and endocrine systems. Pancreatitis can be an extremely painful condition that can worsen over time and eventually lead to permanent damage to the organ, impairing a patient’s ability to digest food and make pancreatic hormones. The standard treatment is pain management - there is no medical treatment to cure the condition. In very severe cases, the only option is removal of the pancreas, which inevitably causes type 1 diabetes, as the insulin-producing islets are removed along with the rest of the pancreas tissue. 

Recently, 31-year-old Michael, who suffered from severe bouts of pancreatitis for 5 years, underwent a procedure called a Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Auto-transplantation (TP-IAT). Michael’s pancreas was removed at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, then flown to SVI in Melbourne where the islets were isolated. With a tight same-day turn around, the islets were flown back to Adelaide to be infused into Michael’s liver. 

Michael says, “I was originally diagnosed with pancreatitis about 2 hours after attending a hospital emergency department with extreme abdominal pain, high fever (up to 42 degrees) and vomiting. The diagnosis came after a blood test revealed highly elevated pancreatic enzymes, which later led to two collapsed lungs, four pancreatic pseudocysts and 10 days in the ICU. My family was initially quite scared as the first acute episode was so severe and I was fairly close to not making it.” 

After years of endless scans, blood tests, and surgical intervention, Michael was told by numerous specialists that he had reached the limits of medical science and would have to live with the chronic pain and constant attacks of pancreatitis. Michael however, refused to accept that he would have to live the rest of his life that way and did some research online. He discovered that a small number of patients in the US were offered pancreas removal and islet auto-transplantation as a treatment option. During the course of his research he came across Professor Toby Coates at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Professor Coates and his team had performed the first paediatric islet auto-transplant in Australia, using islets provided by SVI’s islet isolation team. 

Michael’s procedure, which took place in July this year, was filmed by National Geographic as part of its Medical Miracles series, to air in early 2018. 

“At only 4 weeks post operation, I can honestly say I haven’t felt this good in years. I was initially concerned about the risks associated with diabetes and the risk that the islet cells would not be effective, but they are performing exceptionally well after only a month. I am already off fast-acting insulin and my blood sugar is well controlled with only a once-daily injection,” said Michael. 

“The surgery was certainly very tough in the initial stages, but I felt confident with the team I had around me; Dr John Chen is an exceptionally skilled surgeon, and the team at St Vincent’s Institute in Melbourne, who carried out the islet cell isolation, did an amazing job. 

“I really hope that TP-IAT becomes more accessible to chronic pancreatitis patients in the future. There is really only a handful of physicians doing this kind of work and, having been an active participant in online support forums, I can say that there are many more people out there suffering through this illness who are looking for answers. 

“I also hope the government and other charitable organisations continue to recognise the value in new procedures like the TP-IAT, and dedicate more funding to allow for research and medical advancements to continue in all areas, not just in pancreatic medicine.” 

Liver in a dish

The 1982 classic film ‘Blade Runner’, set in Los Angeles in 2019, brought to life a world in which artificial humans could be engineered entirely in a lab.

While the real world hasn’t quite caught up with Ridley Scott’s imagination, researchers in SVI’s O’Brien Institute Department are working to develop lab-grown liver ‘organoids’ to help those affected by liver disease, which is associated with common conditions such as obesity, diabetes, viral hepatitis, excessive alcohol intake and cancer.

In 2016, Dr Geraldine Mitchell and her long-time colleague Professor Wayne Morrison were awarded an NHMRC Project Grant to fund the development of what they call a ‘liver in a dish.’ 

The ultimate aim of their work is to grow an ‘organoid’ derived from a patient’s own cells, to be used as a source of tissue for liver transplantation.

Geraldine says that liver disease is more common than is generally recognised in Australia. 

“The only treatment for advanced liver disease is transplantation; because there are not enough organs to meet demand, many patients die before they can get a transplant,” says Geraldine.

Geraldine’s research involves a multi-disciplinary team, including researchers and surgeons, whose focus is on using human cells to ‘grow’ a liver that could be up-scaled in the future to be used for transplantation, or as a platform on which to test drugs to treat the disease. Geraldine explains that without the involvement of surgeons at St Vincent’s Hospital, and in particular, her PhD student, Surgical Fellow, Dr Kiryu Yap, the project would not be viable.

Kiryu says that one of the major hurdles is the need for cells in the organoid to get enough oxygen. The team are approaching this problem by engineering a vascular system for the tissue, derived from human support cells that can form blood vessels and secrete growth factors to help liver development.

Other components include a porous scaffold that provides a physical support upon which the cells can grow and a special gel, which provides other factors that promote the cells’ survival.

Ultimately, the team intend to use stem cells from a person with liver disease to grow liver tissue for transplantation. 

Even though the promise of genetically identical replacement body parts remains the stuff of science fiction, the way is being paved by Geraldine and her team.

New collaboration for Alzheimer's research

SVI has entered into a collaboration and license agreement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (“Janssen”), one of the Janssen Pharmaceuticals Companies of Johnson & Johnson. 

The partnership is aimed at developing and commercialising small molecule modulators of microglial function and inflammation, with the aim of reducing the amyloid plaque burden and Alzheimer’s disease severity. The collaboration was facilitated by Johnson & Johnson Innovation. 

The collaboration leverages SVI research capability and the expertise of Professor Michael Parker – one of Australia’s leading structural biologists – with Janssen’s drug discovery and development expertise.

SVI Director Professor Tom Kay said, “We welcome this collaboration with Janssen to develop a novel class of Alzheimer’s therapies. 

SVI is proud of its research excellence and we are excited to partner with Janssen, a pharmaceutical industry leader in neuroscience research and development. 

At SVI, we continue to work to translate our fundamental discoveries into future medicines to improve health outcomes.”

Professor Parker said, “The burden of Alzheimer’s on our ageing society is ever-increasing, so there is a great need for effective treatments that will lessen this burden and improve the quality of life for people not only in Australia, but throughout the world. We look forward to combining our expertise with Janssen’s drug discovery and development capabilities.”

Louise & Colin

The year 2008 was a busy one for Louise Purton. With her husband, fellow researcher Carl Walkley and their 4-month-old son, she moved back to Melbourne from Harvard, where she had spent 3 years researching the role of stem cells in blood disease. 

The couple bought a house, established their labs at St Vincent’s Institute and spear-headed a successful fundraising drive to raise money for new equipment for their research. 

Two years later, Louise took a 12-week break from work to have her second son. With Sam safely ensconced in the St Vincent’s childcare facility, she jumped headfirst back into the lab, taking breaks in her busy day to breastfeed the baby. 

In 2011, she was appointed a Senior Research Fellow of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). As for any couple with two small children, the following years were busy and tiring – coping with disturbed sleep and complications of childcare arrangements.

For Louise, when combined with the relentless pressure to stay on top of the field and publish in world class journals, this led to difficulties in securing funding for her work. In stepped SVI supporter Colin North. 

He pledged his financial and moral support to Louise and her research over a period of 3 years. The assistance paid off, with Louise awarded $1million in NHMRC’s 2016 Project Grant round. The grant funds her team’s work into identifying new therapies for patients with a range of diseases that affect blood cell production. 

Louise says, “The support from Colin during this difficult time was amazing, it made such a huge difference to both my research and to my morale. The interest he took in my work was motivating during the most challenging period of my career. I am honoured to be funded by such a wonderful man.” 

Colin says, “In the current restricted and prescriptive funding environment for both private and government research grants, situations can arise where the funding provided to the Institute by philanthropic support can make a significant difference. Louise’s predicament was one such situation.” 

In typically understated fashion he adds, “I am pleased to have been of assistance to a great scientist and institute.”

SVI welcomes tour groups

SVI’s researchers are always keen to welcome supporters and students to the Institute, relishing the opportunity to explain their research. 

In May, members from the SVI Support Group had the chance to learn about the research being undertaken by students that they have supported through the SVI Foundation Top-up Scholarships scheme. 

We also hosted guests from the Walkers of Merrett type 1 diabetes advocacy and fundraising group in July. They met with Associate Professor Stuart Mannering and Dr Michaela Waibel, both from the Immunology & Diabetes Unit, and Dr Tom Loudovaris, Manager of SVI’s Susan Alberti Islet Isolation Facility. One of the participants said “…. after meeting staff and scientists from St Vincent’s Institute, we are full of hope for better treatments and ultimately a cure for type 1 diabetes.”

We also had our annual tours with secondary schools; in June Year 10 students from Genazzano College visited SVI. They were welcomed by Associate Professor Natalie Sims, and heard from Dr Jessica Holien (Structural Biology Unit), Dr Wayne Crismani (Genome Stability Unit) and PhD students Toby Dite (Protein Chemistry & Metabolism) and Jane Xu (Stem Cell Regulation). 

After the tour, the Genazzano teachers said, “…a wonderful morning (as usual) – all the sessions were very informative and pitched at a good level for our girls. A number of them commented on the way back that it had opened their eyes to another avenue of study in science – we can only be pleased with that. Will look forward to coming again next year.”

The FCJ Benalla Tour in August provided year 11 students with the opportunity to hear from researchers about our research into cancer, type 1 diabetes and bone disease. 

Most recently, we welcomed Bachelor of Biomedical Science students from the Australian Catholic University (ACU), who learned about the research being undertaken by Dr Tom Brodnicki (Immunogenetics), Dr Andrew Deans (Genome Stability) and the work of the BioFab3D@ACMD facility.

All SVI supporters are encouraged to visit the Institute to learn more about our research; call (03) 9231 2480 or email foundation@svi.edu.au to arrange your tour.

The power of friends and philanthropy

Since 1989, a group of like-minded and committed women, who make up the SVI Support Group, have organised fundraising events to support the Institute. Today, 29 years after its foundation, seven of the original 33 are still active members of the Group. 

The Group’s events eventually morphed into an annual dinner to provide ‘Top-up Scholarships’ to support SVI’s Honours and PhD students. Incredibly, since 2005 their dinners have raised more than $400,000, and provided financial support to 34 Honours and 44 PhD students. 

“It all started when Professor Jack Martin, who was the Director of SVI at the time, and Jock Chappell, who was Chair of the Institute, contacted me and asked if I would organise a function to raise money for the Institute,” said Claire. 

“I set up a committee with Jack’s wife Christine, who had cancer at the time. Sadly, Christine has passed away, but she has left a great legacy. Essentially, it was Christine and Jack’s friendship, and the quality of research that the Institute does, that was the motivation for us to do some fundraising. Our first event was a Christmas Ball, held at the Hilton Hotel. 

“We take great pride in supporting SVI’s wonderful students. The calibre of their work continues to inspire us to help them do the best they can. We know we’re supporting the quiet achievers as well as the leaders of tomorrow – it takes all kinds of researchers to make the discoveries that can change people’s lives,” said Claire. 

The SVI Support Group also arrange for secondary science students from Melbourne’s Genazzano FCJ College to visit the Institute each year, so that they can gain insight into the intricate workings of a biomedical laboratory.

In 2014, PhD student and scholarship student, Alvin Ng, said, “Although most PhD students receive a scholarship from the Australian government or the University, the living allowance is less than the minimum wage. With the support of the Scholarship, I do not have to worry about keeping a roof over my head or putting food on the table. Most importantly, I can focus my time on my research projects, which means getting closer to the answers that our research aims to resolve.” 

PhD student Jasmina Markulic, who received a Top-up Scholarship in 2015, said, “When I started, I thought ‘How could I support myself, work part-time to cover the cost of living, and put in the hours required?’ The Top-Up Scholarships give us the financial security we need to focus on our research projects, bringing us one step closer to finding a cure in our chosen field of research.” Jasmina is currently in the second year of her PhD in SVI’s Structural Biology Unit.

Former recipients of SVI’s Top-up Scholarship now work across the world in well-known tertiary and research hubs such as Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard.

The Support Group members are always keen to get to know the Top-Up Scholarship students, and are invited to annual presentations by the recipients, so they learn more about the research projects they are working on.

When asked what the highlights have been for the Support Group, Claire says, “Well, the fact we can still get together each year and get people who are happy to support the Institute and attend the event is the highlight for me. We look forward to celebrating 28 years of fundraising at our Annual Support Group Dinner in October this year; then we’ll start planning for next year!” 

Banking on a cure

Play your part: provide a sample for medical research

St Vincent’s Institute (SVI) has two types of Biobank: a Living Biobank (the HMSTrust Biobank), and a Cold Biobank. 

A Living Biobank is simply a list of people who have offered to give a sample of blood from time to time. The advantage of a Living Biobank is that scientists can use the sample ‘fresh’, which is better for some tests. Our Living Biobank will help progress our research in areas such as type 1 diabetes and cancer. 

A Cold Biobank is a collection of samples that are stored in freezers. People who donate to a Cold Biobank usually give a single donation, which is then stored. These samples are then available for researchers for use in the future. 

Thanks to members of the Young Leadership Committee (YLC) for donating blood, to support our Living Biobank, on Tuesday September 19th. YLC Victoria raises awareness and funds for research into the prevention, treatment and ultimate cure of type 1 diabetes. 

If you would like to donate a sample or receive more information you can complete our online Contact Form (visit our website at svi.edu.au and search for “Living Biobank”), or contact the Biobank Coordinator on phone: (03) 9231 2480 or email: biobank@svi.edu.au 

The SVI Biobank Program is a partnership between SVI and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne. 

SVI celebrates 60 years of Jack Holt's generosity

On the 28th of April, 2018, SVI will celebrate 60 years since the doors of its laboratories were formally opened. The event was possible thanks to the generosity of racehorse trainer, Jack Holt. 

Jack Holt was born in Berwick, Victoria on the 14th of November, 1879, the fourth child of Michael Holt, a labourer, and his Irish-born wife, Mary. The young boy could ride almost as soon as he could walk. After leaving school at 16, Holt obtained a jockey licence and rode at Sandown, before moving on to train horses in 1902. 

He went on to become one of the most successful trainers in Australian history. In the 17 seasons between 1918 and 1934, he headed the Victorian Trainer’s Premiership 13 times, winning all the important races in Melbourne and Sydney. Throughout his career he trained more than 1000 winners and earned an estimated 500,000 pounds of stake-money for his clients. 

Holt lived his entire life together with his two sisters, Margaret and Catherine in ‘Lethe’, a small 8-roomed cottage that he had constructed in Mordialloc. His business acumen and skill as a trainer led to the development of a rather large fortune, but above all Holt was known for his good humour and generosity. The death of his beloved sister Catherine in 1945 provoked him to think about how his estate would be disposed of upon his death and he decided to bequeath the majority of his considerable assets to found a school of medical research on the campus of St Vincent’s Hospital, Melbourne. 

Invalided after a heart attack in 1948, Holt died of a coronary occlusion at Mercy Hospital on June 10, 1951. Holt’s will provided for his surviving sister, Margaret, various charities and friends, including his stable foreman. The remainder of his estate, valued at 200,000 pounds, was left to establish the ‘John Holt Medical Research Endowment’, which SVI still benefits from today. Margaret Holt died within a year of her brother and was buried with him at Berwick Cemetery. 

We look forward to celebrating Jack Holt’s generosity in 2018. 

Bequestors who have advised SVI of their intention to leave a bequest will be invited to join the Jack Holt Society. For a confidential chat or further information please (03) 9231 2480 or email bequests@svi.edu.au