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Tom says

Normally this column is about SVI’s outstanding scientific staff, but our success as an institution depends on many other people not directly involved in science. The Chair of our Board is one of these. The current Chair Brenda Shanahan steps down in December after 14 years – a remarkable tenure.

What does being Chair involve? For Brenda it has meant a highly conscientious commitment to SVI that has been virtually a full time job alongside her other responsibilities as a nonexecutive director in the finance sector. Perhaps the first priority is orchestrating the Board itself – finding people in the community prepared to serve as Directors, running the meetings and balancing a need for thorough and robust discussion with orderliness and time constraints.

There are many issues including, inevitably, the financial health of the Institute (which has prospered under her leadership), fundraising, relationships with affiliates such as the University of Melbourne and St Vincent’s Hospital and all-important links with governments. Brenda has handled this by phone, text message, email and face-to-face and she is extremely effective. She has been a hands-on Chair and is on the campus many times per week.

A particularly busy time for Brenda was when she was our Chair and the Chair of the St Vincent’s Hospital Board – the ultimate joint appointment! It is unusual to Chair both a research institute Board and its affiliated hospital and it says much about the trust and respect that Brenda has within all branches of St Vincent’s Health Australia. Stepping into Brenda’s large (metaphorically) but dainty (literally) shoes is Tony Reeves.

Tony and his wife Margaret have attended SVI functions such as the SVI Support Group Dinner for some years and he has more recently been a Director of SVI. His background is as an experienced Chief Financial Officer of large companies, most recently for Treasury Wine Estates. We thank Tony very much for taking on the role and wish him well – we know we are in safe hands.

Another recent recruit to the Institute is Kate Barnett, who has joined SVI as Chief Executive of the SVI Foundation. She has already made a big impact with her enthusiasm and energy. Previously Kate was Director of Development at Melbourne Law School and before that she held a diverse range of positions in law and not-for-profits. Realistically, fundraising is a very important function within SVI as we seek to diversify our sources of income to cushion ourselves against the very difficult environment for peer-reviewed grants, our core source of funding.

Thanks to all of our Boards and committees and all of our staff, both scientific and non-scientific, for your hard work over the year.

And thanks and season’s greetings to you, our supporters – we appreciate all you do for us.

SVI snapshot

Dr Christopher Langendorf from the Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit has been awarded a prestigious NHMRC Early Career Fellowship to continue his work on understanding how the body balances its use of energy.

Dr Andrew Deans, Head of the Genome Stability Unit, has been awarded the David B. Frohnmayer Early Investigator Award by the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund. The award is given to independent investigators of high accomplishment within 10 years of starting their own group.

Dr Colleen Elso from the Immunology and Diabetes Unit was awarded a $60,000 grant from Diabetes Australia aimed at precisely identifying the immune cells that cause type 1 diabetes.

Dr Christina Vrahnas has been awarded an Early Career Research Grant from the Jack Brockhoff Foundation to aid her research into the factors that control bone strength.

Something to celebrate on World Diabetes Day

Four of Australia’s top type 1 diabetes research teams, led by SVI’s Tom Kay, have been awarded a National Health and Medical Council (NHMRC) Program Grant of $9.46m to find new ways to prevent and treat the disease.

The grant outcome was announced on November 14th by Federal Minister for Health, the Hon Greg Hunt MP, at SVI.

Type 1 diabetes is an immune system disorder that primarily affects children, leads to a lifelong reliance on insulin injections, and remains a cause of premature mortality.

The Program focuses on three intersecting themes. The first theme centres around early life and understanding why type 1 diabetes develops. The second theme looks at prevention and seeks to identify new drugs to stop the disease from occurring. The third theme aims to improve therapies to replace the cells that are destroyed during the disease process.

Tom said that the research funded by this award will be critical to developing new approaches to assist those with type 1 diabetes and to stop the disease occurring in the first instance.

“It is our intention to make discoveries that positively impact those living with the disease, and hopefully, prevent others from developing it in the future,” he said.

“We are grateful to the NHMRC, the Government and Australian taxpayers for supporting medical research so strongly over recent years, including with the establishment of the Medical Research Future Fund. We are also grateful to our other supporters, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Diabetes Australia and to the large number of patients and their families who contribute to our research.”

The four chief investigators are the nucleus of a large team of national and international collaborators using a comprehensive approach to research type 1 diabetes.

The team includes young researchers using the latest scientific technologies as well as experienced mid-career scientists and clinicians, both paediatricians and adult physicians, who play an essential role. These projects require the synergistic efforts of the Program and could not be achieved by working as individuals.

“On behalf of my co-investigators, Profs Andrew Lew, Len Harrison and Philip O’Connell and, importantly, our collective teams and our associate investigators and their teams, we are excited to accept this very substantial 5 year grant,” Tom said.

Tough on the surface

SVI researchers have identified a key pathway that makes the external surface of male bones – called cortical bone – stronger than female bones.

Bone is made up of an internal honeycomb-like structure – called the trabecular bone – which is covered by a thick outer shell of hard cortical bone. While the signals between bone cells that control the growth of trabecular bone are relatively well understood, until this study the signals that control cortical bone formation were unknown.

In research published in the journal Nature Communications, the team, led by SVI’s Associate Professor Natalie Sims, showed that mice lacking a signaling protein called Socs3 in specialised bone cells have severely delayed formation of their cortical bone. Male mice recover from this impairment at puberty, but female mice do not. This is because testosterone interacts with other proteins that enable the process of bone corticalisation to continue.

Treatments for osteoporosis are best at preventing vertebral fractures – the most common site of fracture. This is because they are able to increase the strength of the trabecular bone. However, these treatments are less able to strengthen cortical bone. Weakened cortical bone leads to fractures in the hip and wrist, which are common in sufferers of osteoporosis.

“Most research that has identified genes that control bone mass has focused on the trabecular bone,” says Natalie. “Until this study, we didn’t know any specific signals that control the strength of cortical bones, and why some people develop stronger cortical bones than others – it’s a big black box.”

“The next step is to identify which molecule needs Socs3 for cortical bone production. This could eventually lead to the development of treatments to slow the deterioration of cortical bone that happens with age and would aid sufferers of osteoporosis.”

Professor Peter Ebeling, Medical Director at Osteoporosis Australia, said “This discovery is very exciting as we have treatments that are reasonably good at preventing fractures in the vertebrae. However, we are not so good at fixing the more common hip and wrist fractures. If we can develop therapeutic targets that prevent the erosion of cortical bone, that could be a major game changer. It would have a huge impact on the quality of lives of many people who suffer from weak cortical bones and the cost savings to our health system would be significant.”

Funding for the research was provided by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

SVI's first Fanconi Anaemia family meeting

The first Australian and New Zealand Fanconi Anaemia Family Meeting was held at SVI in October. Families from Australia and New Zealand came to attend talks by Australian and international experts, and meet other families faced with the disease.

Those born with Fanconi Anaemia – a rare genetic disease – need a life-saving bone marrow transplant in their childhood. Furthermore, the risk of developing cancer is extremely high in people with the condition. The disease is a focus of research in SVI’s Genome Stability Unit.

At the meeting, a number of clinicians and scientists shared their knowledge of the disease and the latest research. A highlight was international speaker, Prof Jordi Surralles from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who gave a presentation about a recent gene therapy clinical trial being carried out in patients.

Attendee Kate Bowe of Townsville, said, “We will never give up hope of finding a cure as there is amazing research happening all over the world and some of the best is happening right here in our own backyard, at SVI. Thank you all so much”.

Those who attended the conference were incredibly appreciative of generous support from the Ian Potter Foundation and the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, which made the meeting possible.

SVI's rising stars

Testament to SVI’s focus on recruiting the best young talent, and providing rewarding environments that set them up for a positive career path, two of our young researchers have been recognised with prestigious awards.

Dr Christina Vrahnas, who did her PhD under the guidance of Associate Professor Natalie Sims, from SVI’s Bone Cell Biology and Disease Unit, has recently been awarded an Early Career Research Grant from the Jack Brockhoff Foundation.

The grant supports early-career 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.

The award will support Christina to extend work deriving from her PhD studies in which she showed that bone strength depends not only on the quantity of bone, but also on the quality of the bone matrix. This is determined by activities of osteocytes, a cellular network embedded within the matrix.

Last year’s recipient of the Jack Brockhoff Early Career Grant, Dr Chris Langendorf, was this year awarded a prestigious Early Career Fellowship from the NHMRC which will support his salary over the next 4 years.

Releasing the insulin handbrake

SVI’s Dr Kim Loh is part of a team of international researchers who have found that a receptor, called Y1, suppresses the release of insulin by pancreatic islets.

This discovery has the potential to boost insulin secretion and improve the effectiveness of islet transplant procedures.

Kim, from SVI’s Protein Chemistry and Metabolism Unit, led the human islet experiments in the study. The human islets were obtained through the Australian Islet Transplant Program, which hasundertaken more than 45 isolations for type 1 diabetes and pancreatitis patients.

“We found that human islets are able to release more insulin when this receptor – the Y1 receptor – is blocked. When we undertook transplants using human islets in diabetic mice, we also found that we could correct blood sugar levels more rapidly when the mice were co-administered with the Y1 receptor blocker,” said Kim.

Patients undergoing islet transplantation often need two or three transplants before they are able to produce the amount of insulin they need. Blocking the Y1 receptor and boosting insulin production could mean fewer islet cells needed for each transplant, opening up the procedure to more people with type 1 diabetes. Fewer donor cells could reduce the risk ofimmunological complications, leading to a better outcome for transplant recipients.

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; it is normally managed with daily insulin injections throughout an individual’s lifetime. Islet transplantation is a treatment for people who have unstable type 1 diabetes, especially those with recurrent or severe hypoglycemia, which happens when blood glucose levels drop dangerously low.

“We are very grateful to the people who donate their pancreatic islets for our studies, and their families. Their donation is essential for making islet transplantation therapy feasible and more accessible for type 1 diabetes patients. These discoveries wouldn’t happen without their generosity,” Dr Loh said.

The findings were published in September in the journal Nature Communications.

SVI's Support Group holds its 28th Black Tie Dinner

SVI’s Support Group held their 28th Black Tie Dinner at The Athenaeum Club on October 19th.

Since 2005, the money raised by the Group has been targeted towards Top-up Scholarships for SVI’s best PhD and Honours students. To date, more than $450,000 has been raised, providing support to 34 Honours and 44 PhD students.

This year’s cohort of SVI Student Scholarship recipients joined a room full of generous and enthusiastic supporters at the Support Group’s annual dinner.

Speakers included the Chair of the SVI Support Group, Claire O’Callaghan; SVI Director, Tom Kay; SVI Foundation Chair, Karen Inge and Scholarship recipient, Will Stanley.

Will thanked the SVI Support Group for their work, saying, “I am from a small town in regional Victoria, where my father was a biology teacher. He instilled in me a love of nature that I stillhave to this day, but it wasn’t until he bought my brother a microscope, which I adopted as my own, that my curiosity towards the world of biological science was ignited.

“When I moved to Melbourne for University, it was a huge eye-opening experience about how expensive city life can be. Without the added financial support of my Top-up Scholarship, I would have had no choice but to work part-time and spend less time in the lab, where I do research into type 1 diabetes.”

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, to learn more about their research projects.

SVI Support Group Chair, Claire O’Callaghan, said, “Investing in young people, especially SVI’s students, keeps us all motivated. And every time we meet these student researchers, they continue to inspire us with their enthusiasm and work ethic.”

SVI would like to acknowledge all those who have donated to support scholarships at the Institute, and especially thank the SVI Support Group for 28 years of support.

SVI Support Group members
Claire O’Callaghan
Margaret Batrouney
Colleen Bolton
Maureen Breheny
Bernadette Dennis
Clare Dyer
Cathy Gilbert
Angela Griss
Barbara Handley
Carole Hart
Dawn Regan-Hill
Jo Lonergan
Gail McHale
Genny Nunan
Geraldine Peck
Margaret Reeves
Judy Ryan
Therese Whiting
Thecla Xipell

SVI 2017 Golf Day raises $80,000

Thanks to the generosity of SVI’s Golf Day sponsors and supporters, more than $80,000 was raised for SVI research at the 10th Annual Charity Golf Day, held on Friday October 27th. This brings the fundraising total for this annual event to close to $900,000.

Thanks to our platinum sponsor, Macquarie Leasing; we’d like to particularly acknowledge Andrew Sidery and Jamie Stenhouse for their ongoingenthusiasm and generous support of the Day. Thanks also to our two silver sponsors, Maxxia Australia and Alliance Insurance, our 11 bronze sponsors and four individual sponsors who helped make the day such a great success.

Thanks to Mia

Mia Krongold chose to support SVI research at her recent Bat Mitzvah celebration. In lieu of gifts, Mia asked for donations to SVI’s type 1 diabetes research program.

Together with her mum Janene, Mia visited the Institute in September to learn more about the work that SVI researchers are carrying out in the area of type 1 diabetes.

If Mia inspires you as much as she inspires us, get in touch to discuss how you can raise funds for our research. Contact Kate Barnett on (03) 9231 3265, or kbarnett@svi.edu.au

Brenda Shanahan retires from SVI Board

Brenda Shanahan has retired from the SVI Board, after 14 years at its helm. Tony Reeves has been appointed as her replacement.

Brenda has a long history with SVI. She has been a Directorsince 1996 and Chair since 2004. Brenda has made major contributions to the Institute through her dynamic and enthusiastic leadership, highly collaborative approach and promotion of philanthropy, where she led by example with her generous support of the Institute’s research.

Through her SVI role she also was appointed a Director and subsequently Chair of the Board of St Vincent’s Health Melbourne, then the governing body of St Vincent’s Hospital. It is very unusual to have someone simultaneously Chair a major teaching hospital and its affiliated research institute and it is a tribute to the high level of cohesion and trust that she brought to the campus.

Brenda is well known nationally and internationally as a leading member of the financial markets community in Australia. She has been a member of the Australian Stock Exchange, an executive director of an international stockbroking company, asset management company and actuarial firm. More recently she has had many non-executive director appointments in public and private companies and government bodies.

Importantly, Brenda has been a pioneer as a female leader in a male dominated profession and has paved the way for other female leaders, both in her chosen profession and at SVI. Tom Kay says, “Brenda is a woman of great drive, energy, determination and ability who intuitively believes that research can lead to better health for the community. She has promoted and supported medical research through her own efforts and by marshalling the support of her business colleagues.”

SVI whole-heartedly thanks Brenda for her selfless dedication to the Institute over so many years.